When I first went out to publishers to pitch what eventually became my memoir No One Tells You This, the biggest concern I confronted was ‘was there a story here?’ What was the character’s journey? What was her goal? What was the point of all this, as in, where did it lead?
The memoir is essentially a chronicle of my 40th year as a woman who was both single and had no children but was also managing the responsibilities of an ill parent among other things. The irony, which I attempted to explain, was that much of the narrative was about the fact there is no recognized narrative for this life. How does one live fully when there is no ritual or reward attached to your life?
Seven years later, we are definitely starting to tell better stories, though not nearly enough. The point, however, is, even the people interested in telling different stories about women’s lives were struggling to figure out how to do so without the end result being marriage or a baby.
I am reminded of this challenge, of what happens when reality diverges from a narrative so deeply ingrained no one knows how to tell a different story.
The American idea of success continues to permeate how we talk about everything from work and goals, all the way down to what we view as the workweek norm. You start at the bottom, “pay your dues,” work your way to the top, or at least upwards, and slowly but surely attain wealth and security until you reach retirement age and then spend the remainder of your life playing golf or, when it was still possible, going on cruises.
This trajectory has, of course, largely been tailored to white men (one might make the same argument about the marriage narrative), who seem to be the only ones who have truly benefited from it. It’s not a coincidence that once women gained access to this world the “having it all” conversation for women very quickly turned into “is having it all killing me” conversation, because actually having it all just meant doing another job on top of the one you were traditionally expected to do.
And yet, even as the reality of our work lives — the burnout, the low pay, the instability, the lack of protections — has pushed more and more people to question the value of success, the narrative remains. You can see it in the surprised coverage of the latest jobs report. The expectation was that as unemployment benefits were removed, all the “lazy” people who’d been taking advantage of them and refusing to go back to work would now be forced to. And yet that’s not what happened. The truth, which has felt obvious to some for some time, is that people are very much reconsidering what work they do. Maybe, gasp, it is not all about the money.
Related to this is the reality that for so many of us even when you are doing exactly what you want to do there is no money. That no matter how hard you work “so-called careers” often feel like one has been inadvertently cast in the old Super Mario Bros games I was playing with my nephew over the summer: fits and starts; unexpected holes sucking you down and spitting you back; reaching the last level and then boom, something fails (the funding, the advertising, the point is… it’s rarely you) and you’re back at square one, starting all over again despite your years of experience and knowledge.
In the end, it all leads back to the same place: what are we doing this for? These days I find I am repeatedly asking myself…where do I think I’m going and is there any chance of getting there? And even if the answer if yes, do I even want to be there?
Last month Charlie Warzel wrote a column for his newsletter titled “What If People Don’t Want ‘A Career?’“
What the career skeptics are asking is a simple question: What if all that reasoning and endurance language is bullshit? What if, instead of working toward something for decades and barely tolerating the day-to-day process, we created a different value system around labor? What if we built our working lives around a concept other than endurance and submission?
I, of course, am approaching this question from a particularly precarious place. Making a living as a writer these days is close to impossible. Even at the most coveted institutions, freelance rates have plummeted below what anyone could consider a living wage. The sense of constantly being tossed back to the beginning is one experienced every few months as opposed to years. I’m not sure there is a solution to this, and it might just be the experience of a person who is in a dying industry — an experience shared by many in this country over the years. But I also think it’s possible that the solution lies, as it so often does, in telling better and truer stories.
We’re starting to see attempts to do so, like today’s big feature in the New York Times about work. All we can do is demand more and more and more and more — something Americans have always been good at — until we learn to change the meaning of the word itself.