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The American Way of Work
Careers as space vessels
Another installment on the life of work from “Everyday Life in the Late American Empire: The Logic of a Dream.” —Jim
What might be termed the American Way of Work is based on a flight plan whose arc projects upward from imagining toward striving and fulfillment. That’s the plan, anyway. The actual trip runs through a galaxy of possible experiences that takes decades to traverse. And when you find yourself in the gravitational field of one of this galaxy’s sundry planets, it’s hard to escape them: they pull you down. Reaching your destination may take a long time. And there will always be the possibility, even likelihood of unexpected detours, not to mention black holes.
Even under optimal conditions, such gravitational forces slow and bend your trajectory, tending to ground you in an ever-present now. That now is actually a series of concentric orbits. The tightest is the working day: you get up in the morning, go to work, attend to whatever other preoccupations you may have before going to bed, whereupon the cycle begins again. There may be pauses or wobbles of greater or lesser degrees of regularity (a day off; a weekend or vacation; an interval to recover from a health setback or other interruption) before momentum reasserts itself. Even when you want to, you find it hard to pause, whether to stop and smell the proverbial roses, grieve the loss of loved ones or friends, or simply consider what you might choose to do if you had the opportunity to break out of a particular orbit. You usually can do all of these things, but very often even having fun takes effort, making the most basic creature comforts that require the least propulsion (a glass of wine; a television show; a nap on the couch) sacrosanct in the relief they afford from the relentlessness of your fixed rotations. They’re weight you can’t bear to throw out of your vessel.
There are other circles, too. Some are literally or figurative seasonal. Years—calendrical, fiscal, school—begin and end and begin again. Special events get prepared for, enacted, reviewed. At their best, such rituals offer the prospect of renewal. At their worst, they enervate in their static repetition. And so it is that minutes, hours and days become weeks, months, years, decades. There are shifts and disruptions, but the worlds of work are never formless. Though finite, their very essence is routine—the imposition of order on the entropic flow of time. You need and resent them.
But you’re never standing still. The circle of time never closes perfectly; your life is a spiral and you move forward in that dimension whether you want to or not, your aging body informing you of the passage of time even if nothing else does. That’s often a saddening reminder of your mortality, but it’s also a source of hope. You’re always looking forward to moving on, even if moving on means achieving sufficient altitude to drift away from the solar system of labor altogether. So it is that daydreaming about one’s retirement begins decades before you ever get there—if you get there.
We’re all habitual daydreamers. Doesn’t matter how good that job you just landed is; part of the appeal in getting it comes from imagining where it might take you next. You’re willing to put in a few rotations at Planet Now, but it will take relatively few before you start plotting your escape. Assuming you break out and you make it to Someplace Else, it will only be a matter of time before your start scheming again. Another set of concentric circles. You know there’s more to the galaxy than where you are now, but it begins to seem like a rumor.
Some of us, though, find ourselves liking Planet Now. We may jump around a little before coming to this conclusion, or we may find ourselves reconciling to ourselves to our inability to achieve escape velocity. (Are we growing up, or giving up? Are they one and the same?) The climate of our current habitat can be a factor, but not necessarily the decisive one. We learn to make do—and we begin to focus on local possibilities for progress at any place we call home even as we maintain a consciousness of Someplace Else.