When American children are quite young, they’re asked repeatedly by their parents, schoolteachers, and other adults what they want to be when they grow up. To the best of my knowledge, rarely does an inquiring adult expect to hear: “A loving human being open to whatever life brings me.”
The question of what “to be,” or rather, what occupation to choose, soon becomes one of children’s fixed ideas, something that, in time, takes center stage in their very pragmatic hopes and dreams for the future. Kindergarten through 12th grade have come to function as a way to produce knowledge workers, pushing courses in STEM while ensuring that classes in wood shop or ethics will continue to be out of fashion or remain “what a few of the strange kids do.” Later on, universities will forcefully push this agenda by employing career counselors, setting up career resource centers, tracking career placement, and dangling these statistics in front of prospective students. All of which will keep the treadmill turning.
Throughout their formative years, therefore, young people are hammered with the idea that they need to have a career—and not just any career, but most especially a “worthwhile” or “fulfilling” one. This narrative has become so deeply rooted in common sense that it has become hard to even see it, let alone to question it.
What is a career?
Former Facebook president Sean Parker once remarked, “I think a career is something your father brings home in a briefcase every night, looking kind of tired.” I think it’s worse than that. I think that careers are a bad and destructive idea—not just for the person who embarks on one, but for everyone.
But to see this, we’ll first need to figure out what a career is.
A career is not reducible to a job or to a string of jobs. A job, a conceptual invention of the nineteenth century, is a way of packaging, by means of an employer-employee contract, some reasonable contribution the employee may want to make to the world together with a livelihood (a steady paycheck) and a suite of benefits (not the least health care coverage, which became wedded to gainful employment only after World War II). But if we had jobs when we were kids, quite rightly we didn’t think that these were, in most cases, the start of our careers. That’s because a career is some kind of ongoing relationship we have with paid work (or with a mélange of unpaid and paid work). But what kind of relationship is that?
A career is a first-person work-centric story of progress about an individual’s life course, a story that confers a sense of purpose and unity upon specific work experiences (internships, jobs, gigs, projects, awards, promotions, etc.) as well as a staid identity (journalist, firefighter, accountant, executive coach, independent art advisor, etc.) upon an individual. The aim of the career, and therefore of the careerist’s life, is work success.
This definition applies both to the mid-century Organization Man, a worker who exchanges loyalty to a particular organization for potentially life-long employment there, as well as to the most recent figure sometimes called a “portfoloist.” A “portfolioist” is someone who, being a product of the twenty-first century, “takes inspiration from these other disciplines to create an adaptable, diversified, and personal career.” This is the customized, not the standardized career. The portfolioist may belong to no set industry or occupation, yet somehow she takes what she’s doing to be all of a piece with the portfolio career she is devising.
Whether it’s Career 1.0 (which promises career advancement via promotions and the receipt of more senior titles, often at the same, stable, multi-generational organization) or Career 2.0 (which requires a customized portfolio that can demonstrate one’s advancement through a precarious work world that is increasingly dominated by freelancing and short-term projects) doesn’t matter. Both presume the centrality of a story I tell myself not just about the work I do, but above all, about who I am.
How “the death of God” led to the birth of the career
In 1882, Nietzsche told the horrifying story of a madman who one bright morning runs into the marketplace, proclaiming that though he has long sought God, he cannot find him. And the reason he cannot find him is that, “We have killed him, —you and I! We are all his murderers!” Meanwhile, the throngs of people laugh out of “amusement” and can only look on at him “in surprise.” He concludes that the “prodigious event is still on its way”: the Death of God has already occurred—without fanfare—but the culture-wide recognition of its magnitude, of its great significance for them and for future generations, had not.
To be clear, the parable is not concerned with an individual’s loss of belief in God (for some individuals have and will continue to believe), but rather with the loss of a shared metaphysical picture of the universe. It is the loss, no less, of what another philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, once called a “metanarrative,” a shared way of making sense of the cosmos and of providing meaning for millions of human beings. And so, all that had guided European culture for thousands of years had been summarily swept aside, leaving only the here and now, the dust and bone of the earth, in its wake.
Without the belief that my life is a part of a cosmic drama playing out around and through me, I’m thrust into a new world where I believe I have only one life to live; where I’m existentially alone in all this; and where I can do no more than work on the world before I disappear from it. It is not surprising, then, that secular concepts emerge at this time to provide a new, albeit inadequate shape to human lives. The four I have in mind are: pleasure, romantic love, sports, and careers. These secular concerns have essentially become the only ones most people have embraced today. We pursue sexual pleasure through loose bonds of friendship (hanging out while drinking beer) and through a consentual form of sexual morality (witness hook-up culture on Tinder); we pursue monogamous romantic love in the hopes that it will satisfy our deepest emotional needs; we engage in physical exercise or play sports, a pastime only popularized in the past 100 years or so, both as an end in itself and as a means to enhance health for the sake of greater productivity; and we pursue careers, which were only invented in the nineteenth century and which only became prominent after World War II, as the final aims of our lives.
Unknowingly, we embrace the career at our peril, for the career is a very pale substitute for the loss of culture’s shared faith and shared vision. That is a world-historical and metaphysical loss, a loss we have yet to acknowledge, let alone grieve for.
Why the career is a pretty bad thing
So, the career functions as our god and our gospel. But it’s not a good thing.
To begin with, it rests upon justifications for actions (or inactions), which are narrowly focused on personal self-interest. It’s not that performing a surgery is necessarily a bad thing. But if the doctor performs the surgery expressly because she is trying to advance her career, then she may be performing an unnecessary surgery and the patient may needlessly be put at risk. And this is not an isolated case, since being committed to careerism readily commits one also to giving justifications for one’s actions (or inactions) that are not primarily focused on whatever the right thing to do is for the relevant persons at hand, but rather on the best ways of getting ahead.
At the very worst, these justificatory patterns teach us to be callous solipsists. At the very least, their presence causes us to be embroiled in conflicts created by careerism itself: do I do the right thing just because it is the right thing, and thereby risk sacrificing my own ambitions? Or do I promote my ambitions at the possible or actual expense of others? This kind of conflict may not be present in each case, but it’s built into the structure of careerism.
On top of self-interested justifications is an even greater illusion. The kind of work-centrism underwritten by the career teaches each of us to identify with the work we do and, as a result, to become deeply attached to that identity. Consequently, many people feel anxious when that identity is threatened, proud when it’s affirmed, and utterly lost when it’s gone.
In our work society, for instance, the aged often have no place or role to play after they can’t work any longer. A woman who needed to retire from her professorship due to lupus wrote to me recently to say that the “amplified focus on work [in our culture] not only diminishes life in the ways you describe, but it also marginalizes the old and the sick, and robs the young of an imaginative childhood.” She concludes: “There are no cultural models in our world for leisure with dignity.” And this is so because there are no reigning cultural models urging us to disidentify from whatever we do so that we might carry out the work we do for however long we do it with proper care, but without getting hung up on being it. By perpetuating this strong identification, the career ends up causing all kinds of people to suffer.
Leading on from the breeding of self-interestedness and the nudge toward strong identification is the most damning objection to the career. It is that the career obfuscates the vital existential anxiety we would otherwise feel by coercing us to mistake whatever modicum of fulfillment we find through the work stories for a sense of ultimate fulfillment. But the latter is a promise the career simply cannot deliver. No work we do, however fulfilling it may be, can provide us with a sense of ultimate fulfillment. Only transcendent experiences, those that take us beyond our ordinary sense of self and thereby reveal to us our home in the cosmos, can hope to provide us with the lasting satisfaction we seek. No human action on its own can bring about grace, and nothing less will do.
If, therefore, we grant that no work we do can provide us with ultimate fulfillment, then we’re unwittingly thrown back on the existential question: who or what really am I if I am not what I do for a living? Who am I if I’m not the work-centric story I’ve been telling myself all these years? Why am I here if I’m not fundamentally here for that?
A bad but sticky idea
For too long, the career has been a bad but sticky idea. It has clung to social life, sometimes changing shape, almost always vainly worrying about its wan appearance. But it’s time has come.
We should stop asking our children what they want to be when they grow up. It’s a pernicious question. And we should want to live in a world where the pin-you-down question, “What do you do?,” is seen as so terribly vulgar that it’s not worthy of serious consideration. We should kill that question as well.
Instead, we should ask our children how, in a fundamental sense, they wish to live; what and for whom they wish to care; what they shall ultimately seek; what, or for whom, they’d be willing to die; in what ways they can be open to what life brings them; and how they can, as they lay dying, be so sated with life that they close their eyes free of regrets and resentments and at peace with all that is.
To kill the career—call it the Death of the Career–is to begin to wake up to life.