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?