Work, money, value, rambling

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “work.” I’ve been thinking about how we devalue work that isn’t paid, about how we define some types of work as “frivolous” and ultimately not real work at all; about how we often assume that real, serious, socially validated work is hard and frequently unpleasant and how true “passion” for one’s work is, outside of certain narrow exceptions, immediately suspect.

“Work is work,” I was frequently told growing up. “You’re not supposed to like your work. That’s why it’s called work.”

I ran across this lovely essay in the New York Times, and its themes have been ringing in my head ever since. The author of the piece appears to be a comfortable, financially successful middle-aged man with what would be considered a “real” job. His son is a 25-year old musician. The author writes with love and pride and concern about his son’s career path:

My son Max is a 25-year-old singer and songwriter who goes by the moniker Dolfish. When my friends ask how his career is going, I say, “There’s a girl in Indiana with Dolfish tattooed on her arm,” although that doesn’t exactly answer their question. They know Max was signed to an indie record label when he was 23. They know he tours a lot and has been reviewed by some important music sites and even by mainstream magazines. . . What my friends don’t know is how to measure any of this on the only scale most of us have. You know, the one the I.R.S. uses. And to be honest, I’m not sure how to answer the question either. How successful is Max’s music career?”

The author compares his son’s lifestyle to the 9-5 grind he and his contemporaries lead, and writes of how he and his middle-aged friends are busy working toward retirement just to have the lifestyle that his 25-year old son already has—a life pursuing one’s passion.

He muses: “Maybe we should have an expression that captures the level of success you’ve achieved when you do exactly what you love every day.”

This isn’t all a moony, stardust-in-the-eyes ode to pursuing your passion. The author is concerned about his son’s future; he worries that the young man won’t be able to afford a family or health insurance. And the author is writing with genuine pride of a young man who is doing what he loves, who doesn’t accept parental handouts, and who does substitute teaching between gigs to make ends meet.

The online comments on the piece were, predictably, eviscerating (I really do need to stop reading the reader comments on major news sites).

“Bum,” “parasite,” “lazy,” were typical epithets thrown at the young musician in question. “Get a real job” wasn’t the extent of it; many commenters seemed to presume, not only that being a musician isn’t a real job, but that’s it not even any kind of work at all. That touring and practicing and writing music isn’t rigorous and exhausting; that if a creative field is pursued out of love, then it’s all just fun-and-games. That Max, the young man in the article, really is a lazy bum playing around and having a good time while real Americans put in their time at real jobs.

Certainly there are legitimate financial concerns about pursuing an artistic career in America, or any type of high-risk creative field. But the vitriol vented online was something else. There was a deep anger in some of the comments, a resentment that seemed to stem from a feeling of “I hate my soul-sucking job, therefore everyone else should hate theirs, too!”

A presumption that if someone truly loves what they do, it can’t be real work. Even if, you know, it often is a lot of work (I assume road tours can’t be easy).

Interestingly, an exception to this presumption occurs if an artistic career makes a lot of money. As an astute commenter on the original piece said, "How is Max a bum? Is Bruce Springsteen a bum? Is he a bum until he's a member of the 1% The 10%?" 

No one would ever call Bruce Springsteen a bum. Or Bono, or Adele, or anyone who happens to be making tons of money at their art. Money somehow transmutes everything; that which was unrespectable becomes worthy. A struggling film graduate is a bum only until he produces a hit movie, at which point he is suddenly no longer a bum but worthy of adulation (even though he’d been working hard all along the way). Ditto the struggling novelist, painter, musician. Struggling anything.

I suppose I’m sensitive to these ideas now because of where I am in my life: no steady, full-time job, no paid “work.” I was raised to equate a job’s value with the money and security it brings; and though I rebelled against that view, I’m still unable to tear out the roots of that teaching. I chose to embark on a career path with little security and relatively poor financial compensation considering the amount of education and training required. I chose a path for love, not money. My family’s direst warnings came true, and that career (basic scientific research) collapsed under current funding pressures. And now I sit at home, writing fiction and pursuing a field with even less financial compensation than science. A bum twice over, according to some views?*


*Of course, a number of people would say that I can only do this because I'm "bumming" off of my husband, who trained in a practical field and brings in a more-than-comfortable living. Yes, I'm privileged. Very very privileged. And I still have a weird and complicated relationship with money and self-esteem and value, as I think we all do.


  1. You aren't a bum, and neither is Max. If your situation changed and you needed to use your writing or some of your other skills to bring in money, you would do that. You happen to have the financial ability to focus on things other than money right now, and that is great.

    I have been thinking a lot about money and work, too, because I am considering going out on my own as a contractor. I think contracting is a better fit for my personality and work style than full time work, but if I'm honest, I'm considering doing this now because I want to free up more time to pursue various other things that interest me . All of the things that I want to pursue are work-like, but I doubt any of them would bring in much money right now.

    To me, money is a tool that you use to get the kind of life you want. Once you have enough money to buy the kind of life you want, there is no need to chase more if the chase does not make you happy. Sadly for me, the type of life I want is pretty expensive. I've thought about that, and am not willing to let enough things go to live on just my husband's (quite decent) salary. So all of my work ideas involve me continuing to make a fair amount of money. But that is just me, because the things I want (namely, to stay in San Diego in the house we are in now and to have the ability to travel as frequently as our schedule allows) cost a lot of money.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Cloud. I do agree with what you say, but it's also hard for me to separate out my emotions and family/cultural conditioning from my intellectual abstractions :)

    I'm trying to make it as a contract medical/ science writer and editor myself. I've only had two gigs this year, but having tasted this lifestyle I will say that I would not willingly now go back to work full time for someone else.

    Good luck on your own career path. I hope you find that balance between paid work, personal fulfillment projects, and family!


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