As the global economy struggles to recover and many people have sunk into dependence on government assistance, a recent popular blog post suggests that we value people for what they produce rather than who they are.
Blogging the Zeitgeist
Over the last few days, I’ve repeatedly been confronted with the blog post 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person from Cracked.com. And while Cracked does come through with six individual points, they all pretty much boil down to the same thing: your value as a human being should be measured entirely by how much value you can produce for other people, without recourse to who you are. To put it even more tersely in the words of Janet Jackson: “what have you done for me lately?”
Somewhat of a radical thesis to be sure, but not a new one. This sentiment has been around ever since established people have snarled “get a job!” at younger and less-established people. And this attitude has new currency given the economic downturn which has sent young and old alike to the bread line. Cracked links to The Last Psychiatrist who rails against “hipsters on foodstamps.”
Two Fundamental Truths
The impulse to say “get a job!” and the backlash against it come from two truths that I think almost anyone can agree on. The first truth is that there are no free lunches. If a lunch exists to be eaten, it’s because someone — usually a lot of someones — worked to create it. When the number of lunch consumers exceeds the number of lunch providers, you have big trouble, as we see now in Greece and other countries that struggle to provide promised entitlements to their retired and disabled populations.
The second truth that fuels the opposition to the “you’re only as good as your last success” crowd is that human need is non-negotiable and time-sensitive. If we’re hungry, then we’re hungry right now whether or not we have the ability to produce lunches at the moment. Logically, one could take the position that those that can’t produce shouldn’t eat, and thus starve, but I don’t think that’s a position many people are willing to take in this day and age.
So while these two truths coexist, which one of them is most front-of-mind says a lot about someone’s politics. Conservatives attend most closely to lunch production, and making sure the people who create lunches get to eat most of the lunches created. Meanwhile, those on the left are more attuned towards inflexible human need and making sure that everybody has at least some lunch, regardless of their ability to produce.
No matter which side of the political divide you inhabit, you’ll have to admit that some of the time, some of the people eating the lunches are not the same people producing lunches. Whether you call it “charity,” “the welfare state” or “redistribution of wealth,” producers tend to be grumpy about non-producers.
Doing Leads to Being and Being to Doing
As a therapist whose stock-in-trade is human potential, I find the being / doing distinction somewhat of a distraction. The simple truth is that you can’t do much until you have the inner resources to perform. But where do those inner resources come from? From doing, of course! Being and doing are like the right and left foot. If you want to walk somewhere, you’ll need both in order to go very far. A little bit of doing leads to slightly more ability, or being, which enables more doing. When things are going well, the virtuous cycle repeats in a march of personal growth.
However, the hike to self-actualization is littered with obstacles. Some of them, which the “get a job” contingent are eager to point out, are attitudinal. If someone feels entitled to what they have, that can stifle the effort to produce. Others may feel the game is rigged, or there is no opportunity at the present time (how much of this is an excuse and how much is reality-based is often hard to decide).
Authors like The Last Psychologist, who harp on “hipsters on food stamps” are quick to lambast recent graduates for going to university but picking an impractical, unsalable major. Although it’s been many years since I was an undergraduate, what was a saleable or practical major was not at all clear. From some quarters we heard: “just get a degree, any major will do, and you’ll get a job.”
Meanwhile, by 2001, I held one of the hottest degrees available: a master’s in Computer Science. But the Internet bubble exploded and that supposedly-valuable degree got me no job offers for almost a year. To make matters even more confusing, in recent years a slew of for-profit universities have sprung up that tout their credentials as marketable, but the sea of unemployed graduates tells another tale.
It’s hard to guess what sort of credentials or training will be valuable even a year or two into the future. If I had to do it over again, I would probably have focused either on general skills that I could demonstrate through an online portfolio, or some profession that requires certification and thus limits the supply of professionals competing for work.
It’s also not good enough just to have the ability to produce: you have to convince others to trust you to make it happen. In the last decade we’ve gone from printed want ads in newspapers, thorough online resume and job matching, to the post-online world of job search in which personal network and reputation trumps almost everything else. For the “hipsters on food stamps,” they’ll need more than can-do attitudes and saleable skills to “get a job,” they’ll also need their own personal PR effort to join the ranks of the venerated do-ers.
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