Posts Tagged 'money'

The Meaning of Work

Unemployment is a torment for several reasons. First and most obvious is the absence of money, which moves from an initial restraint with social activities to a genuine fear of not being able to pay bills or buy groceries once savings are used up.

Secondly, there is the social stigma, an assumption that one is being lazy or choosy, or the more irritating envy of the employed, as if one is not a job-seeker but a person of leisure, taking in all the sights and cultural activities on offer or idly drinking elaborate coffee-based beverages while catching up on ones reading.

Thirdly, there is the internal concern of a lack of value. Whether one is a member of a capitalist society or a socialist utopia, individual worth is tied into what one can contribute. A career suggests not just being of use, but a purpose, a developing skill set with a concurrent increase in value to that society. Without even a job, there is a sense that one is both a burden to a community and inherently lacking in worth.

In searching for work, one is faced with another concern – meaning. Even with intense competition for every available position, the perpetual application process draws focus to our desire to have work that is meaningful to us in some way.

I remember as a child being told that I could be or do anything I wanted, if I just put my mind to it. This is a big lie. But it’s a lie that stays; it makes every job that doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities or offer an intellectual challenge seem like a waste. As much as I need money, part of me still objects to the idea of doing something I don’t want to do. It seems horrific to spend life working on something we don’t find important, squeezing in meaning on the weekends or over vacations.

Success and Accomplishment

How do we define success and accomplishment?

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Historically, accomplishment was tied to education (the sort befitting the sex of the person in question) and financial success. A man might, after receiving a classical education, study law or religion, then inherit a political or ecumenical position, and/or a series of estates, which would require some management but essentially bring significant income from the rent on these properties, or a return on any standing investments with financial institutions.

Women, should their family have the means and inclination, would be taught in subjects such as foreign languages, and various forms of ‘refined’ entertainment like singing and playing instruments, painting, and needlework. Information on how to run a household would also be forthcoming.

However, both of these types of accomplishment are based on class. Obviously, one’s family would have to have money and something like a title in society to provide this sort of life and education. So what of everyone else? Men could perhaps find glory in the armed forces, or the church, and women would, again, have to run households (however small), and perhaps work as a seamstress or milliner, and everyone else would work on one of the farms owned by the upper classes.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=17th+century&iid=7312717″ src=”6/2/9/e/Peasant_cottage_interior_4877.jpg?adImageId=9135178&imageId=7312717″ width=”234″ height=”190″ /]But did they think of success differently? These people with fewer opportunities to become wealthy or ‘cultured’? One must assume so, otherwise, what goals and satisfactions could be had if all accomplishments was left to the few wealthy families? Perhaps a well run farm, or a thriving small business, or in general an aptitude for the position into which they were, for all intents and purposes, born, or a talent for self-edification and pleasing society.

Most western societies now, have the same general concept of success – financial and educational (the latter being related to the former, at least ideally) and are, theoretically, at least, more socially mobile. The US prides itself on being a country where a person of the meanest origins can become a multi-millionaire. Education and health care are more readily available – heavily funded federally in Canada and most of Europe, although the quality of such does still largely depend on where you can afford to live and if you can afford insurance.

And, generally, we have more choices. Though the majority of people still have to fall into the lower section of society, simply by virtue of statistics, there are more types of business, more industry, and the implication (if perhaps not the fact), that anyone with enough determination can reach the top, regardless of class, colour, or creed, in a career that interests them beyond the potential for remuneration.

It is this last assumption with which I take issue, having recently sparred with someone over the truth of it. They iterated that some young upper class women of their acquaintance were in law school, and had done very well for themselves, in contrast to the slightly older people he knew at work (a store), where he and his coworkers all believed themselves to be unaccomplished, unmotivated people who, though not necessarily unhappy, could not claim the kind of success these young women appeared to have.

To me, this is immediately problematic as the people in question were already favoured by access to the best education possible, in all likelihood because of, yes, inherent aptitude, but also because of the best schools they were able to attend due to their family’s financial privilege, whether it be the cause of living in a nice neighborhood with a better local school, or the ability to pay for a private school and exam review courses and the like.

Does this mean that people from lower quality schools never achieve the same thing? Of course not, but while I salute the women for knowing what they wanted and achieving it, but to insist that it had absolutely nothing to do with social advantages is foolish. Moreover, the implication that anyone who works in a shop or some other working class position is somehow unmotivated and less accomplished than these women is insulting.

Yes, perhaps the individuals to whom this person referred consider themselves capable of greater things, but they both haven’t quite decided what that is, nor seen the kinds of opportunities (often provided by familial or school connections) that might suggest a particular line. These are people who do genuinely have to start at the bottom, of whatever industry or industries they think might being them the most enjoyment. And, particularly in an economic climate where millions of people are unemployed, the competition for the few positions available is going to be steep.

In the meantime, of course, people have to eat. (This is leaving aside, for the moment, the idea that some people might actually want to work in a shop, with perhaps the aim of having their own some day). Success, in this case, would be finding the money to pay for basic necessities and having enough left over for a satisfying social life.

Additionally, of course, everyone defines success and accomplishment differently. Not all accomplishment has to cost thousands of (insert appropriate currency here). Some goals are more personal – traveling, creating art, self-edification, buying property, having a family, etc. And although society at large likes to have an easy way of judging the success of other people, bank balance and the job title on a business card seem ultimately quite shallow.

While I do hope that one day we live in a society where everyone truly does have equal opportunity to achieve whatever dream they have for themselves, and there isn’t such a gross gap between the highest and lowest earners in society (there is no reason for anyone in the West to live below the poverty line. Not when CEOs could drop their salary by half, still be millionaires, and all of their employees could make 10K more per annum), any estimation of accomplishment and success, of oneself or others, should take into account both what that person wants for themselves, and where they’re starting from. It’s a lot harder to reach the top from the bottom than from the middle.

Or maybe we shouldn’t judge at all. But then, I suppose we need things to admire in others to inspire ourselves.

UK Budget Headlines

The headlines in response to the new Labour budget from Alistair Darling all seem to claim a rise in taxes – focusing largely on the increased percentage paid in the top bracket – from 45% to 50% on £150,000 and up. Also mentioned are the per unit sales tax of “2p on fuel, 1p on beer, and 7p on cigarettes”.

What confuses me is the comparative absence of attention on the decrease in income tax on the vast majority of earners. Metro has a handy “how will it affect you list”. And the increase in spending focused on getting people back to work. And the investment in green infrastructure and development. These are mentioned, of course, in a bullet-point kind of way, but the headline is about the tax that affects 1% of the population, not the massive work done on behalf of the majority of workers, newly unemployed, and the young.

Instead, people are pointing out the borrowing necessary to maintain the increase in spending (and anticipated tax hikes in coming years to pay back those international loans). Apparently, the debt will be roughly equivalent to £23,000 per person (79% of GDP), before slowing decreasing over the next ten years. Before people start passing out, I think it’s worth noting that the US debt is about $35,500 per person, or about £24,000. Not that a country should be aiming for the same deficit as the US, but it’s worth pointing out that the US has had an increasing deficit for about 9 years now, and, while the economy is in a bad situation, it wasn’t caused by government borrowing.

I understand the strain on people who are business leaders, who would perhaps be better used with tax incentives related to long-term job creation and investment, but by the same token, if you’re earning that kind of dosh, a) your accountant can probably ease the pain and b) even after tax you’re taking home more than 3 times than your average joe. How much do you really need?


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