Job Titles That Last and Why Higher Education Stresses Efficiency Over Fulfilment

My current life plan is to find a job that (among other things) has a title that would resonate through the ages. I have this theory that if you can see some iteration of yourself in the past it provides an anchor that grounds what you do in age-old tradition, wisdom and experience – even if you choose to throw it all out the window, you become another chapter of the profession, adding to its history. For example, teaching has varied slightly in its methods and certainly in who constitutes its pupils, but in effect the basic idea is the same: pass on your knowledge or the collected wisdom in a certain area to other (hopefully apt) pupils. Same with politics (helping to set out the framework by which a society lives), or law (advocating on behalf of someone else), or medicine (healing people). The people who practise the work have changed, but not the work itself.

Workforce Analytics Advisor? Strategic Competitive Profit Returns Consultant? Glorified Corporate Meeting Room Booker and Assistant Calendar Organizer? Not so much.

It’s a classic extension of Marx’s theory about the division of labour: the less of the finished product you see, and the more divorced from the whole cycle of production, the less comprehensible your job title, the less happy you are. Contrast the artisan shoemaker of medieval Europe – who has the pleasure of seeing the end result of his labour knowing that he has cut the sole, and sewn the pieces together, and fashioned the design himself – with his modern counterpart who may spend an entire “career” attaching the plastic aglet to the lace in a third world Nike factory. It is a simplistic example, but one that can be applied in all fields. In today’s sprawling corporations, there are entire departments that would be unrecognizable to our grandparents; working in HR, I see many that seem to be written in some sort of code that even I can’t understand. The same is true everywhere: specialized accountants, forklift operators, entertainment writers whose entire life is a blog about American Idol.

It is possible to extrapolate a greater goal and a more recognizable field: entertaining, assisting, helping other people make money. And of course helping oneself make money, and survive – the ultimate goal for all of us, even those of us fortunate enough to have a choice in what we do. (Marx’s ghost appears again, saying that work has become our means and not our end.) But the fact remains that this increased specialization has led to a whole generation of intellectually impoverished people for whom the majority of “living time” is singularly focused and no doubt lacking in any sense of greater purpose. So they seek panaceas outside of work, in churches, in books, in music, and in reality television – and celebrate those who are famous and have risen out of the mediocrity (more on this later). And are still unsatisfied.

I don’t mean to paint an entirely one-sided picture. Certainly, the advancement of the division of labour has given us wonderful opportunities to live in cities and not worry about farming our own food, and buy cars, shoes, and any number of other things that are produced at miraculously low costs, for example. It has given rise to incredible diversity of experience and of thought, which has in turn resulted in the invention of new theories, and religions, and nations – all new ways of categorizing and understanding oneself and others. I am a woman and an ENTJ and a Canadian and so on and can wax poetic about what the interactions between these things signify because someone specialized in law or psychology or communications enough to discover and explain them in a way that connects and divides people all at the same time.

My feeling is that it really begins after high school. Universities and colleges promote a perpetual increase in specialization in order to graduate, and the result is students whose work becomes less and less relevant the longer it progresses: I, for example, went from studying the aforementioned division of labour theory in first year European History and seeing how it played out in various novels I read in English Literature and applying the insights to political trends in Canada in Canadian Politics to writing longer and longer papers about the privileged few wealthy, white, American consumers who rode trains on the Union Pacific line in the West between 1870 and 1885 during my Master’s degree. And that still wasn’t specific enough. And eventually it got to the point where the 5 people who might theoretically be interested in reading my work (apart from my mother and supervisor, for whom it was essentially mandatory) are the same people for whom I would eventually be competing for the 1 job as an Associate Professor of American Western Consumerism on Trains in the Mid-to-Late Nineteenth Century. Tragic.

Of course, it certainly does not capture the complete picture to blame institutions offering higher education, because they are merely responding to the needs of the job markets and aiming to drive up the statistics that show what percentage of students is employed after 6 months, 3 years, etc. (assuming that employment = satisfaction, of course, with no reference to how fulfilling said employ may or may not be) A large number of students who might twenty (or two hundred) years ago have applied to philosophy, classics, history, or literature – very general programs that stress broad thinking and application across disciplines – are now flocking in droves to more career track programs  like engineering, nursing, and teaching. It is certainly evidence that specialized, employable skills are in, and holistic thinking that may be deeply personally gratifying but entirely useless when it comes time to finding an interesting job (or any job, for that matter) is out. Efficiency in getting students hired wins.

Are we all stuck working as faceless corporate warriors who can’t explain what we do at parties without having people’s eyes glaze over? The focus, perhaps, should not be on job titles, because I doubt they were ever all that important – and had to be simple enough to be translated into names, after all (Smith, anyone?). My goal for the next month is to try to find a way to explain what I do in 5 words or less, including an interesting verb, e.g. I teach, I make stories, I design and build bridges, I help people. So far, I’ve got “I write blog posts.

What do you think? Have I completely undersold the advantages of the division of labour? Does today’s increase in technology make it impossible to have simplistic job titles? And do humanities majors even stand a chance?

5 Responses to Job Titles That Last and Why Higher Education Stresses Efficiency Over Fulfilment

  1. Katie says:

    Kathryn, I find this blog very interesting. I’m not sure that specialization itself automatically correlates to lower job satisfaction or employs a narrower thought process. Job satisfaction is dependent on a variety of factors, one being the personality of the worker. There are some people who LOVE to do the same thing consistently and well, in a zen like manner that I would find tedious and dull (then again I have multiple jobs so I may be on the far side of the spectrum). If a person was this way, I’m sure they’d find a great source of pleasure in it. I think the fact that fewer people seem to enjoy this monotonous work has to do with the values and attention spans of the individual and modern day society. In fact, many meditative thinkers have emphasized just how important it is to find the real meaning in action. That we are only a small part of a larger integrated whole (therefore there is value in playing a role instead of doing the entire thing!). However, I do think that I tend to produce better work when I have some knowledge of the other steps involved and perhaps even practice all levels of a craft.

    It seems as if you are lamenting the fact that education and society appear to have gone from emphasizing a broad knowledge approach to specialization. However, given the technical difficulties of some of these fields, and the vast amount of knowledge required, don’t you want some specialization, and don’t you want it before the first day on the job? If you were to have brain surgery, wouldn’t you prefer to see the doctor who specialized in it than one who never practiced it?

    I do understand that there is a real fear that we may be losing the value of people who study theoretical, philosophical, or simply vastly different things. However, I think these people will still be valuable in creating the future, a new place where many people do multiple things – either for financial or personal reasons. It is when these people who know enough about different things get together with specialists that really exciting things do/could happen. A yoga instructor may give a psychologist a technique to use to with patients, or a doctor may have a solution to an artist’s project dilema.

    And finally, I simply don’t worry about job titles.I don’t understand much of what my peers say they do, but they seem to think they understand what I do. No matter how succint and concrete titles are, they always fall short. Somehow, “I’m a fitness instrutor” or “I’m a guide/teacher” doesn’t capture the essence of my work (not to mention that it’s only one of my jobs). “I teach yoga” gets people thinking about complicated poses unless they know that yoga is about training the mind using the body. I usually go with something longer like “I teach yoga, pilates, spinning, and art. I also have my own company that offers graphic, web, murals, and interior design services. I also make art pieces because I’m a part time wannabe struggling artist (how to define this is another blog post entirely).” (With all these I am’s, why can’t I just be I am!?) Try fitting that on your resume.

    PS I’m sure you learned a lot about Trains and American Consummerism that would help with future unrelated specialized endeavors. If nothing else it prepared you to write these blogs and discuss it. 🙂

  2. Kathryn Exon says:

    Katie, I’ve been thinking about your comment for a while.

    First of all, I really need to try meditation. I’ve heard about it a lot recently, and I think the benefits of it – being centred, living decisively, thinking deeply, being calm – are all things I aspire to. They’re right along the lines of the way I feel when I read “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” for the nth time. I can just never find the time! 🙂 Ha! Seriously, though, I wonder, if we are to find the meaning in our actions, if those who did not enjoy doing the same thing over and over again but were forced to would suffer even more? (The old “ignorance is bliss” argument returns once more.)

    I agree with your argument about the brain surgeon – completely. There is a place for specialization, and practicality. A large place. I just worry that day-to-day practicality is privileged far, far more than theory, because the advantages of being future-focused are less apparent and certainly less material than practical ones. No doubt there are too many in the world who sign up for theory and then find out they don’t enjoy it or don’t enjoy it enough to give up comfortable living for it. (Witness the skyrocketing numbers of those in universities who hate it and would much prefer to be in college or in trades.) It is certainly a luxury of our modern world that we even have room for any theorizers and can still manage democracy (as in the past, most of the theorizers lived off the work of slaves, servants and serfs). What happens when we all have to support ourselves and can’t live off the land or our parents’ riches? The ideal formula would be to make a lot of money legitimately and live off it theorizing, I suppose, in order to ensure you can eat and afford brain surgery if the need for it arises. But what if the people who are great at making money don’t want to theorize, or can’t? We just have to hope that they are generous enough with their money that they’ll afford those who do, I suppose.

    Thank you for your thoughts, in any case. I admire your pursuit of holistic living, and all of the interesting and diverse things you do. I think that is probably the best way to secure happiness for people who crave variety: do lots of different things and then find a way to make money from them. One of my favourite bloggers writes a lot about how happiness isn’t about doing what you love as a job, but doing what you love whenever. You don’t have to make money from it. Cobbling together many things that make up a life, and having some make you happy and others make you money likely isn’t the end of the world, after all.

    And good luck with that whole “I am” resume thing. I’m currently struggling with how to present myself to the world in a way that focuses on my ideas over my degrees. Stay tuned. 🙂

  3. I recently found your blog in researching post-historical implications on philosophy and I have become gripped by other elements which are tangent to that in your blog posts. I am a ‘Gen Y’ er and I feel like what is happening economically is going to come to a point where a sort of collapse may fuel or completely obliterate (or paradoxically reinforce) what has come to be a pluralistic utopian anti-progress model, and I was wondering what your thoughts were on this idea of what a “new barbarism” might be, if an entire generation is left to pick up after a consumerist collapse- ie. reclaimed empty buildings, pervasive anti-institutional sentiment, etc. Or if we will perhaps regress back to an agrarian ( or hunter gather-er) model to survive? I completely agree that education is becoming completely inflated, and specialization means nothing in the larger scheme of humanity, and everyones discontent with the lifeless cubicle existence ( and how to define our existence within that locked framework) will eventually come to an apex, but I wanted to see your thoughts on what might happen if and when this larger bubble bursts?

    Your blog really interests me and I want to thank you for taking the time to write it.
    There is a great article just published about this same sort of idea which I find connects with a lot of what you are talking about. Perhaps, I just wanted to solicit your thoughts?

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      Wow – very interesting! Thank you for your comment – I’m really glad you like the posts. You’ve made a couple of great points here that I wanted to address:
      I found some of the threads in the article you directed me to (and in your comments) about how we seem to be at a decision point of sorts really interesting – as in, will we take the Boomer-style overconsumption, all-you-can-eat (as the article puts it) mentality going into the future to its logical extreme, or will our rebellion as Gen Y be the complete renunciation of this materiality, as you say, a kind of regression?

      I very much doubt that it will be a regression, not least because we have so much adopted this materiality from our own childhood and will find it all very difficult to let go of. That’s just the way the world works, right, Wal-Mart and Dancing With the Stars on satellite TV? That and I don’t think our generation sees renunciation as an option because it’s so hard to identify what a rebellion is, or even what an opposite is. The article (which was great, by the way – thanks for the tip-off) talks a lot about how today’s culture has wrapped up elements of protest into the mainstream and celebrates them as proof of the success of mainstream culture. i.e. war protests are expected as part of the success of a functioning democracy; ad execs steal from hipsters in a constant cycle. Moms wear the same jeans as their daughters (literally, the same pair) – where is the rebellion in this? I actually thought that this was the most interesting point of the article, the idea that culture is so self-reflective now it’s hard to know where you stand. Shutter shades from ’08 are out but those who still wear them are to be pitied more than shunned because they don’t understand that all culture is mocking itself now, and you have to be ready to ditch everything at the drop of a hat in order to fit in.

      So in response to your question, I suppose I don’t think the bubble will burst. Yes, we’re all faced with impending doom, but I don’t think it will result in a revolution so much as an evolution. I suspect that it will be more of a course correction than anything else because we are such a collaborative generation (see aforementioned jeans comment). We’re not like the protesters of the 50 & 60s who thought that they couldn’t trust anyone over 40: we love our parents (generally) and want to work with them to tweak the model. It’s not just us, alone in positions of power, either: they’re going to be around for a while, and certainly won’t take kindly to us shoving them out, politically or ideologically, so we’ll HAVE to work together.

      Do you agree? Do you think I’ve overemphasized how collaborative we are? Is there a more revolutionary bent in this generation, or is revolution only something we wear on t-shirts featuring Che? (my thoughts tend toward the latter, but I have a rather low opinion of hipsters. I may at some point write a post about one of my core beliefs, which is that you have to stand for something, and you can’t just stand for criticism or irony.)

      Thank you again for your very thought-provoking questions…keep ‘em coming. I love this stuff.

  4. Tali Purkerson says:

    Yea, I completely agree with you. I feel like any notions of outright/blunt “rebellion” would be packaged up and commercialized, eventually ending up in the void or distorted into a form of cynicism. But I also can’t help but feel that the collaborative nature of ‘gen Y’ is hypocritical (…would we come to be conscious of this hypocritical nature?) What I mean by that is, how can the collaborative aspects of our generation- involving health, community, the environment, green energy, not take into consideration that we are living in opposition to our ideals? ( constant technology, materialism, continued capitalism etc.) And While I see on some level, technology being a vehicle to push towards a more holistic and healthy picture… I also can’t help but wonder if the creative/cynic/hipster ( Not lumped completely together but in general) crowd will come to see that there is no option for being individual and unique any longer (What sustains their culture/identity) and if that would create a crisis in some form also? (Nihilism, existentialism) Which might be the fuel for things like anti-identity, anti-web 2.0, or some form of other farther-fetched underground and ‘un-labelable’ actions without accepting the commercialized forms placed on them ( similar to 60’s protests/ grunge alt etc.) and avoiding commercialization of these forms at radical costs to evoke thought…even when it is dangerous right now with such rigid institutional structures in place.

    I am speculating, but it seems like there would be some form of nihlism present when people start to realize that we all sort of exist in an overwhelming information overload, ( and our economy and existence depends on participating in this information void) I think people might have to step back in some form…if one recognizes the larger idea of a cultural void. I can see that we will have to collaborate with baby boomers the Jones generation, gen x, but I feel like it is more complicated than simple collaboration, because there is so many strands intergenerationally (and ideologically) and even in sizes ( Gen X is marginal…) that our future work environment will either continue to be led by old school ( BIG capitalism)- or until gen Y either overpowers (or becomes disillusioned?) by the larger dynamic. Since our economy is so information based, yet materialistic- the only thing I see is conflicts arising from this, if all our “goods” are created outside… And with information and content being all, If everyone is a ‘creative’ it seems that the work place will have a sentiment sort of maybe like, “everyone had their 15 minutes of fame with the internet, now what? ” But maybe I am looking too far down the line and it might skip over our generation…. I am just speculating, but I guess its just something to think about and turn over.

    Anyways, I really enjoy the dialog about all of this….

    Keep up the great blog!

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