Changing Careers

Having had many careers, all of which eventually ended, I contemplated the evolution of careers and our helpless gravitation towards them.

From the days of Ancient Egypt to the middle of the last century it was fashionable for men to take up careers as soldiers. Some of my ancestors were soldiers. Some career soldiers even did it without loyalty to king and country but with their eyes on money and spoils instead; they were called mercenaries, or in today’s parlance, contract killers. Their not•so•bloodthirsty compatriots joined the clergy and found food, shelter, and power in exchange for commitments of celibacy, 24/7 availability, and piety. Some of my ancestors were clergy too. These were two very solid professions that endured for very long – until recently.

WWII cured our attraction to war and put an end to the mass conscription of soldiers, and, except in a few countries, soldiering in peacetime became just another job. Oh yes, a few strategically placed wars are still being ignited in a handful of non•strategic countries just to keep the arms industry and the armed forces in maintenance mode – but that is all. The clergy paled too, when its ranks (especially the male ranks) got tired of the sacrifice they were being asked to make by working long hours for less than minimum wage without the benefits of family to divert their focus from God’s work; and its power eroded too because a few weaker members decided to obey the demands of their loins instead of their souls and got caught in the act.

The 20th century saw the emergence of the business executive in America, exemplified by that instantly recognizable designation – MBA. In the middle of the last century, the MBA went international, and the pursuit of money and material status became paramount in the post•war boom, overriding those past pop career occupations of killing humans or saving souls. I joined this race too. But by the time the 21st century dawned, the shine had gone out of business. The stock market had imploded periodically on its greed, several times over, and its largest convulsion in the fall of 2008 has made us all debtors for decades to come. Another age was being called for.

I’m calling this present one the Age of the Artist. Technology has helped musicians, writers, DIY TV producers, painters and other creators to churn out truckloads of expression, and they are no longer fettered by gatekeepers who make art the preserve of a few. Now we have better videos on You Tube (short, attention•grabbing and graphic – making their producers celebrities within minutes); books pouring out of everyone living long enough to have a story to tell and a day job to pay the bills (which includes people like me); free digital music from musicians who manage to scrounge the money to produce a handful of songs, put them up on ITunes, and then go off on concert tour – we live in a state of artsy abundance, indeed. This age too will wear out on its excess, I think, when the law of diminishing returns starts to take hold, if it hasn’t already.

I wonder what careers in the next age, the Age of Responsibility, will be like. An age of green living, of cleaning up the excesses of the past, of living on pesticide•free home•grown vegetables, of three meals a day taken at the proper times, of strong family values and spirituality that is not organized and politicized; an age when careers will matter only if they transition us towards wisdom. Sounds boring, eh, to some of us diehards who cling to the dying Ages of Excess? Broccoli for breakfast – ugh! Or would this be the signal that we have finally come full circle since that departure in Ancient Egypt, like the exiles returning home to their Promised Land and to the way of life that their Good Book had always instructed them to live by? Would the word “Career” even exist in this new age?

The Savage within us

I get sent “interesting” videos by friends, fans and strangers, but a couple I received recently turned my stomach.

One was of a raid by soldiers on a village in a country that will remain unnamed; the soldiers—for they were uniformed—arrived in this dusty main street of the village on a busy market day, disembarked from their vehicles and promptly went about shooting every man, woman and child in sight who were going about their peaceful business. The grim footage was covered by a handheld camera that traversed every slumping body until there was no more movement; if a limb moved, it was machine gunned into submission. The lack of sound made the film all the more ominous. For a while I wondered if this was a staged video, but the graphic looks of surprise and horror on the faces of the attacked would have challenged even the most brilliant Hollywood movie studio. The soldiers then nonchalantly got back into their vehicles and drove away. But wait – the camera man was still alive – I was watching his film. He must have been planted there ahead of time to make this record. They (whoever they were) wanted the world to see this! And the video was serving its purpose, making its rounds. It had landed on my laptop.

Then a few days ago I received a video (why do they pick me?) of a young girl in another unnamed, fundamentalist country being stoned to death by a bunch of bloodthirsty men. This clip included sound, and the fury of the mob was blood•curdling. I had to delete this file the moment I figured out what was going on, it was just too savage. But not before I saw this young man in the foreground taking pictures of the incident on his cell phone, very deliberately, finding the right angles for maximum coverage, going about his business in a routine fashion—another reality video in the making.

I tried to put these incidents out of my mind and prided myself that I now lived in a civilized country, with layers of moral conduct so thick that none of this shit oozed out here, that my escape from the Third World once upon a time had been a Great Escape indeed. And then I read about the gang rape of a 16•year old in BC, in my Civilized Canada, which was videotaped, You Tube’d and Facebooked, and my desolation was complete. I desperately tried to rationalize that maniacs worked in mobs in the lesser developed world and only as isolated freaks in our “civilized world”, and so from a numbers standpoint, we were still better off. But then I realized that beyond the act itself, there were millions of voyeurs watching these incidents (over and over again sometimes), continuing to assault and insult the victims, and that they lived in every part of the world, developed and underdeveloped alike. I quickly descended from my moral, civilized•world high•horse and realized that we are indeed in bad times—all of us.

Please – friend, fan, or stranger – if you are reading this – do not send me this stuff again! I get your message. If you intended me to blog my condemnation about these incidents, I am doing it right here, so don’t send me any more of this human detritus which only serves to remind me (and you) that deep down we are still a bunch savages, some of us coated only a smidgeon more with layers of civilized and socialized behaviour than others. William Golding, you were so damned right when you gave us The Lord of the Flies!

The World of the Pieceworker

Once upon a time, a man (or woman) entered a job, worked his entire life, and retired not seeing the light of day in another company, not knowing the travails of unemployment unless his own company went bankrupt, remaining naive and loyal, and at retirement receiving a pin, a handshake and a pension. These symbols of gratitude were as valuable as the decorations placed upon war veteran’s chests at the end of their service, with the accompanying words, “Well done, old boy! Sorry about the blown•up leg and the shrapnel in your chest, but you took one for the team. Enjoy your pension until you die, it’s on us.”

But that has all changed now, hasn’t it? Gone are those lifelong careers. Piecework, or transactional employment, is now the fashion. While demobilized soldiers still receive a pension for the limbs and minds sacrificed in war, the guys who metaphorically endure the same kinds of losses in the trenches of the business or arts world have lucked out. They are beset with employers asking: “Can you work only one day this week—Sunday?” “How many pieces of that widget can you make in an hour? 40? Not enough. How about 120?” “I don’t care about how many books you have in you, I’ll try this first one, and if I like it, I’ll come back (if you haven’t died of hunger in the meantime, that is).”

While all this bodes well for the best products being available in the market at all times, it does not improve the life of the creators of these products who cannot be producing at their best all the time, and who cannot always be expected to outperform each other and themselves. What will happen to our piece worker with his infrequent bursts of creative brilliance? Impoverishment and neglect will get him eventually, after his best pieces have been sold.

Translating this development to the world of writing, even mighty Google has realized that it cannot forget the bedrock upon which its giant advertizing revenues have been built: content, and by extension, that quintessential piece worker, the writer. How to save this much•maligned hack is now the crusade that Google, and other givers•away of content, are trying to determine. We hear of “premium content zones” or walled information communities, where “curated content” will be made available for a fee, with writers being nurtured, protected (and hopefully compensated) for such valuable output. Is the pendulum swinging back? Is it, really?

Will we ever return to the whole•life based relationship between creators and their employers, where the former are nurtured, fed, and released to produce their life’s work, free of the shackles of worrying about when or where the next meal is coming from? Or has progress led us back to the dark ages where the baser pre•occupations of acquiring food, shelter and safety overpower the pursuit of self•actualization, back to a world devoid of creativity?

Piecework may make short term economic sense from an employer’s viewpoint. But it devalues the very resource, the creator, who produces the product. Ultimately this lame donkey may have to be put to sleep, impoverishing the farmer.