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It’s Just a Job

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Roxane Gay reminds us that our work is just work. It’s just a job. That’s all it is. You can get a different one. It is not your identity, or it should not be. But more many of us, it is.

I am far from alone. In the United States, we have an obsession with work as a virtue — the harder we work, the closer we are to God. It’s a toxic cultural myth that contributes to the bizarre valorization of people sacrificing almost everything at the altar of an extractive economy. It’s why an entire discourse rose around labeling people who are simply doing the jobs they were hired for, nothing more and nothing less, as “quiet quitting.”

The expectation that we should go above and beyond for employers who feel no reciprocal responsibility is a grand, incredibly destructive lie. We may not have a lot of professional flexibility, but we do not need to believe anything that is so fundamentally detrimental to well-being.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to rethink almost everything from where we live to how we work. Employees in all kinds of industries are organizing themselves into labor unions to advocate for equitable working conditions. People are taking the big risks and leaving terrible jobs, and employers are having to rise to the occasion to recruit and retain talented people.

These glimmers of progress are incredibly encouraging. As we think about this new year and what we want our professional lives to look like, we should all take some time to reflect on who we are and what gives us meaning beyond what we do. We should think about how to nurture who we are beyond what we do. The greatest shame would be to reach the end of our lives and have the epitaph read, “They worked really hard.”

What’s really fascinating to me about this is how it works in academia. If you are lucky enough to have tenure, you have more job protection and everyday freedom than nearly any job in the world. And a whole lotta faculty respond to this by…..wanting to please administrators and get a pat on the head for doing so. It’s really remarkable. And I mean, the job is not that great outside of the control over our own time. That’s the tradeoff–you get paid very little for your education and age, especially given that you delayed your lifetime income generation by a decade getting a PhD, but you control your time. So the people who respond to this by filling their time doing pointless committee tasks or just desperately wanting a 9-5 job they don’t have to take home, I mean, why are you here? Just go get a real job that pays you something like your skills and at least make money!

This is why, while I am highly sympathetic to those who are trying to make it as adjunct and contigent faculty, my message is also, don’t exploit yourself! If the best you can do after all of these years is to maybe, if you are lucky, get some kind of semi-permanent position where you are teaching multiple sections of the college freshmen survey or freshmen writing and where all you do with your time is grade bad papers for $45,000 a year–again, why would you do that? Just admit the Ph.D. is a sunk cost and go get paid by someone who will value your skills! And yes, every Ph.D. has significant skills that are useful for employers. Social skills? Well, that’s another question entirely.

In any case, don’t exploit yourself on the job. It’s just a damn job after all. No one really cares what you do and you aren’t important to your employer. Someone else can always do your job instead, and that very much includes the extremely replaceable me.

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