I despise careers. Not this or that career but all careers. I mean I despise the concept of the career because I think it’s a bad — and destructive — idea.
I’m an anticareerist. D. JoAnne Swanson is the founder of Anticareerism, a website devoted to anticareerist ideas, and Kate McFarland is a proponent of an anticareerist lifestyle. She defines an anticareerist as “someone who chooses to reject the pursuit of a career in his or her own life.” Which makes me an anticareerist in an even stronger, or objective, sense since I believe that putting any career front and center in one’s life, regardless of who one is or whichever career path one is on, is a bad and destructive idea.
My aim is to convince you of this.
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.” The sentiment I agree with, but as a definition it remains fuzzy. It’s good, therefore, to become clearer first about what I’m going to vehemently attack.
A career is not reducible to a job or to a string of jobs. As kids, some of us had jobs (and a job can be partly understood, as Robert Bellah et al. put it, as “a way of making money and making a living”), but rightly we didn’t think that these were the start of our careers. No, a career is some kind of ongoing relationship we have with paid work (or with a melange of unpaid and paid work). But what kind of relationship is that?
In their insightful book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Robert Bellah et al. define a career as “work [that] traces one’s progress through life by achievement and advancement in an occupation.” This definition gets a lot of things right: the centrality of work in one’s life, the importance of work progress, and the key milestones marked out by work achievements and advancements. It also, by implication, gets right the idea that if one leaves finance and goes into technology, then one left behind one career for the sake of another.
However, the book, originally published in 1985, couldn’t have foreseen the rise of freelancing and of the free agency “portfolioist,” 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 of her devising.
“I think a career is something your father brings home in a briefcase every night, looking kind of tired.”
How can we craft a definition that combines Career 1.0, that of the mid-century Organization Man loyal to a single corporation, with Career 2.0, the neoliberal free agent?
I’ll define any career whatsoever as 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.
An example of Career 1.0 might help. For a while, universities have basically been breeders of careerists (to see this, only think of career counselors, career resource centers, career placement and advancement centers…). A student goes to college and there is prepped and sorted into a particular field or discipline. Soon he or she must choose an industry to commit to (journalism, say), must adopt an identity (a journalist), is nudged to pick out a speciality (investigative journalism), and then upon graduation and perhaps until retirement is told to embark on a work-centric story of progress focused on securing journalistic positions of greater and greater prestige, writing a well-received book or books, and achieving awards recognized by fellows in his or her industry. This transformative process can be rendered in a formula: “I am a journalist working in the field of journalism specifically on A, and through my work experiences over the years I’m trying to progress from X to Y in the field of journalism.”
Millions of people are living out their own versions of this story every day. And it’s a pretty bad thing.
Nine Arguments Against Careerism
I submit nine arguments against careerism:
First, a career, which is assumed to be applicable to everyone (or, it’s implied, everyone so lucky), is only a white-collar concept that has never applied to working class people. Pipe fitters, carpenters, and electricians have had livelihoods, never careers. My uncles and cousins living in rural Michigan were farmers and shopkeepers, not careerists. In this sense, the career fails to account for class and status inequalities and is actually an implicit form of snobbery.
Second, a career is a shared cultural delusion: no career, whether the kind that follows the classic upward trajectory or whether the more freelancer variety that’s modeled on the “portfolio,” can accurately represent lived reality. If only we pay attention, we soon discover that our lives may flow like water, moving this way and that according to too many factors, especially non-work ones, to count. We may do different things at different times; our interests may rise and fall or change direction; our curiosities, going well beyond the bounds of work, may tap vibrant energy in unexplored corners. Provided that we don’t straitjacket ourselves to the violent unifying force of the career, our days, our years may move in zigzags, in eddies and pools, in downward currents, in open circles. Concerning his image of what communist society could be like, Marx once famously wrote that because “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity,” each is free to “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner” all “without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Amen to that.
Third, careers are great ruses. From an early age, children are indoctrinated into the shared cultural delusion centered on what they want to be when they grow up, they’re plugged into institutionalized education for 17-plus years, they’re saddled with student loan debt after they graduate from college, professional school, or graduate school, they’re shoehorned into an “exclusive sphere of activity,” and ultimately they’re corralled into being wage slaves (in some Career 1.0 or 2.0 variety) for the rest of their lives — the justification for all this being that it was in the service of their having careers. It’s worse than a sorry briefcase; it’s a shitty deal.
Fourth, the career instills in the careerist undue self-importance. I am at the center of my story, I hustle and use you to get ahead, I should take credit for what I’ve done, and so in me there is always, as the late philosopher Bernard Williams so aptly put it, “one thought too many.” I am not, for instance, simply kind in an intuitive, immediate way; I treat you with kindness because I have the thought about my being a kind person. Doctoring — a verb — is a fine thing, but caring for a patient because one has the self-important thought that one is a doctor on an upward trajectory is not. Wisely, in The Daodejing, Laozi writes that the Daoist sage involves herself in “creating, yet not possessing / Working, yet not taking credit, / Work is done, then forgotten.” A career, recorded and ever-updated in a CV or resume, will not let us forget what we’ve done. Each product or project, not a gift, becomes grist for a pretentious obituary to be written about us some decades later.
Fifth, careers require that we be transformed into professionals, and professionalism is just such a terrible thing. The professional attitude is distant, stiff, effective, and, most of all, frigid. The professional is not the Good Samaritan, someone who graciously picks up the dying stranger along the road, since he or she grows accustomed to saying, “You are not my responsibility unless ‘your case’ falls within my well-scoped set of duties.” Through a process of professional self-discipline, we teach ourselves how to turn our hearts into ice. If we turn to face others as people, it’s, thankfully, because professionalization didn’t totally stick.
Careers are shared cultural delusions and great ruses to boot.
Our ethical shortcomings described in the fourth and fifth arguments are well-matched by our aesthetic deficits. Sixth, then, narrowing our attention for decades on career pursuits makes us into trivial human beings. This is because becoming deep involves our direct, ongoing confrontation with life’s great existential matters: our suffering, others’ deceit, human folly, the existence of higher reality, and our tarrying with mystery, the things we don’t and perhaps even can’t understand. Depth in us makes for fullness in life. Yet a singular focus on career success whittles us down to the point of utmost shallowness. We become, in the words of Nicholas Carr, “pancake people” and therefore not yet worthy of the gift of human consciousness.
Seventh, the careerist fails to add up the cost of the collapse of community. Since at least the eighteenth century, American parenting has been geared toward developing “independent self-sufficient individuals.” To that end, Bellah et al. emphasize how the American theme of “leaving home” has played a key role in that development. Child-rearing enables young adults to become self-reliant, they then leave the hometown where they grew up, they get some kind of professional education, and they spend their lives trying to make their mark on the world via work. If, in this educational schema, self-sufficiency is the tree trunk and leaving home the branches, then the career is the blooming flower. Yet the untold cost of this rugged independence is the sense of uprootedness, the destruction of the intergenerational bonds of family (the rural small town life anchored in religious belief is largely gone), the unaccounted-for rise of anxiety, and the deep unexpressed loneliness of the solitary individual living in New York City without anyone but herself and tenuous professional connections to rely upon.
Eighth, having a career is a pale substitute for what Nietzsche once called “Death of God,” the loss of a culturally shared understanding of a transcendent dimension existing beyond our ordinary, daily affairs. The career claims that it can provide us with meaning in some grander sense, but in truth it lacks the capacity to make up for what, according to Pascal, was a “God-shaped hole” surrounding modern culture. The futility of a career is revealed when we try to pretend that another task, project, promotion, or accomplishment could be anything but as ephemeral as the last. No piece of human-conceived work will ever, on its own, touch eternity or prove to be lastingly satisfying.
Ninth and finally, a career is an impoverished story about why someone is living and about what his or her life is for. Its major flaw involves running together two very different questions. “How best to live?” is the primary question, that of eudaimonia, the good life. “How continue to survive?” is the secondary question, that concerned with human survival. Rightly understood, the first question has logical and existential priority over the second. The tragic case of physically healthy suicides illustrates this priority: some people have all their material needs met yet see no reason why they should continue living. The career is deceitful, then, in that it tricks us into believing that it can answer both questions at the same time by subordinating meaningfulness to the domain of work: I get paid for what I’m here for and, well, that’s that. No, it most certainly is not.
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 crappy, delusional, pernicious question: it’s unlikely that many people will be any one thing throughout the course of their lives and, what’s worse, it’s an early breeder of unjustified self-absorption as well as triviality.
And we should want to live in a world in which the I-just-pinned-you-down question, “What do you do?,” is seen as so terribly vulgar that it’s not worthy of serious consideration. We should die to 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; and how they can, as they lay dying, be so sated with life that they close their eyes free of regrets and resentments.
To die to the career is to begin to wake up to life.