Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Smarty Pants: Jobs vs. Livelihoods

note: smarty pants posts are my reflections on current events, trends, and perspectives.

I wrote this morning that as a society we tend to gravitate toward utilitarianism when we are stressed out about money. So I thought that this afternoon I would give you an example of what I mean by this...

I was reading last week's issue of Time magazine where they featured a series of short articles on "world changing" ideas happening right now. The very first idea that they listed was titled "Jobs are the New Assets," and I was curious. On the surface this article seemed to make a lot of sense. The basic thesis was that right now our jobs are the most important thing we have going for us. Since our investments are in the toilet, and our homes are losing value, our jobs have become the one nugget of security we can, and should, hold on to.

A Burr in My Saddle:
Underneath the top layer, though, something about this thesis bothered me. I mulled it around for awhile, and came to the conclusion that it was precisely this "utilitarianism" I've been writing about that bugged me. Let me explain.

One of the key points of the article was that our human capital translates into our economic output. In other words, our skills and knowledge can be "invested" into our jobs and earn "interest" in increased economic output. Now that's all fine and well, but I'm not sure I like being defined into categories like "capital" and "output." And therein lies the burr under my saddle: in a recession, particularly when our incomes are threatened, it is easy to start thinking of ourselves as little more than worker bees. The "bottom line" become a primary measure of value. Now this may be a practical (aka utilitarian) and helpful way of looking at things if you are an accountant, economist or banker, but it does not figure as well for stay-at-home moms, artists, writers, and caregivers.

An Unfortunate Temptation:
What I am finding is that during this "economic crisis," the temptation is to look at everything through the lens of "output" and "interest." Unfortunately, day-to-day life is not so easy to quantify. What "output," for instance, do we assign to raising children? What "interest" is earned from creating something beautiful? And do we really want to start measuring everything from that perspective anyway? I certainly don't!

To be fair, the article ended on a higher note, touching on the virtues of finding meaningful work that reflects who we are as individuals. Which leads me to my final thought: "jobs" are truly an important "asset," but I much prefer the term "livelihood" because it implies a better measurement for value: life. I want the work I do to impart life, not just "output." And I want to resist the temptation to start viewing the value of my work under and artificial register of "assets" and "liabilities."

What are your thoughts?
I'm curious to know what your thoughts are about this "recession perspective" of seeing everything in terms of capital and output. Do you find it helpful, or stressful? How do you view the work you do daily, especially during this time? Please share by commenting below!

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