Columns

Krishnamurthy ’19: Making a living

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I’ve always been disturbed by the phrase “making a living.” Those three words connote the age-old virtues of work and wage-earning, but their larger implications are decidedly less innocuous. They suggest that your life is made meaningful and your existence completely justified only when you get out, clock in and collect a paycheck. Now I’m no crazy socialist, no proponent of cradle-to-the-grave Scandinavian welfare. But I am convinced that this type of language — the subtle association of employment status with the right to live — is cancerous and fundamentally corrosive to the quality of American life. It promulgates impossible ideals of self-sufficiency and resilience that most people cannot reasonably fulfill and  enshrines prosperity as some sort of otherworldly reward, accessible only to the deserving and off-limits for everyone else.

In terms of culpability, the political class is most responsible for obsessively romanticizing the sentiments behind “making a living.” Rhode Island’s own governor, Gov. Gina Raimondo has devoted much of her tenure to “creat(ing) opportunities for Rhode Islanders to build the skills that matter for jobs that pay.” Hillary Clinton has embraced an even more ambitious course, promising to “make the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II.” Politico-speak and hyperbole aside, these colorful declarations reveal a lot about the purpose of American public policy and the vast political infrastructure that undergirds it: Find every American a good job.

Unfortunately, this meretricious emphasis on employment only compounds the capitalist myths that so rigidly govern American life. When an individual is defined in purely material terms — by how much they earn, where they work, what they can afford — they are extricated from notions of community and interdependence and made entirely responsible for their own fortunes. Success becomes a function of hard work, and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” begins to feel like sound advice.

But we know that this story is a product of politicized confabulations — not reality. Multiple factors contribute to personal economic outcomes, like conditions of birth, access to education and family wealth. To assert that work ethic is the only determinant of well-being is to willfully overlook the privileges that many Americans enjoy and many more do not. This is why the policy drive to put people to work feels less like a strategy of development than it does a hallucinogenic, a veil of ignorance to drape over the eyes of ordinary Americans whenever their consternation with injustice and inequity reaches a boiling point.

But the ideology of “making a living” leaves us with more conundrums. While it is true that America’s prosperous position in the world is due, in no small part, to advances engineered by capitalist forces, it is also deeply disheartening to think that American life has to revolve primarily around questions of occupation and salary. Our leaders run around announcing grand plans to eliminate community college tuition, invest in roads and bridges and mitigate foreign competition — all for the singular objective of providing jobs, jobs and more jobs.

There used to be a time, though, when employment was not the principal motivator of American political action, when we were unshackled from the inebriating calculus of better employment statistics. Americans toyed with technologies without first appraising their applications and indulged dreams that once seemed hopelessly outlandish. We even sent men to the moon — not because it would create jobs at home, but because we dared to think less about what’s pragmatic and more about what’s possible. The immediate result of these endeavors, of course, was an era of unprecedented prosperity with enough work to go around. These jobs were not a reason to do these things; they were simply the natural result.

Thus, if the American people really want some kind of national resurgence, a comeback to greatness, we have to reorient our policy priorities. That means dialing back our myopic hunger for jobs, acknowledging the diverse sources of individual success and recognizing a simple fact: The ultimate effect of language like “making a living” is not the preservation of American life, but the desecration of it.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu.

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