Before “The Agenda” kicked-off its “Dude, Where’s My Future?” special in September, I wrote a blog post that laid-out my personal concerns about achieving the middle class dream. In my post, I wrote that at times I feel like a fraud. That admission got quite the reaction, so I decided to expand on that thought for those who expressed an interest.
This is may seem like an odd place to start, but in my opinion, making things is part of a happy human life. I think this is why John Locke spent so much time defending the property rights of people who used their labour to create things from a state of nature. Or why Karl Marx numbered all the ways that he thought capitalism alienated workers from their labour.
Humans are made to make things. We take pride in making things well, whether it’s a widget, a casserole or a blog post. However, what happens when your labour is used to make something fairly intangible?
In my opinion, I work incredibly hard at my job – consistently trying to go above and beyond. However, if someone with no context on contemporary office work observed me for a day, I’d probably look like a huge slacker. I spend most of a typical day writing emails, talking to people on the phone, reading newspapers and entering text into a Word document. A lot of my job involves arranging things and then letting others perform. Seemingly not very difficult stuff. Even though it is difficult.
One of my friends who grew up on a farm and made her family proud by graduating from university, admitted to me that she can’t work in an office, because she can’t get used to sitting at a desk and feeling like she’s not doing anything. Today she manages a retail store and raises chickens for fun.
I think my friend is being a bit harsh in her assessment of office work, but she has a point. In office jobs it can be difficult to judge how much work you are doing. It can also be difficult to compare the quantity and quality your work in comparison to your colleagues. And finally, it can be difficult to understand why you get to work in a nice clean office, while others do not.
About a year ago, I started brewing my own beer and I’m surprisingly good at it, if I may say so myself.
People often ask why I home brew. Am I planning to open a brewery one day? I think everyone wonders if I’m an alcoholic – people tend to deal with that theory by asking how many beers I get out of a batch and how often I brew, and then they stare off into space as they do the math. In a smartphone age most people aren’t good at doing arithmetic in their heads anymore, so it’s really obvious when they’re forced to.
Both these theories are inaccurate. In reality, I home brew, because I find it fulfilling. It’s always struck me as odd that I find making something so frivolous so satisfying when I get to create important things at work.
However, as the TV comedy series Portlandia has demonstrated, a lot of young adults (hipsters included) are spending a lot of time creating questionable products.
Why do we do this?
I grew up in a working class, agricultural town where most of my classmates didn’t attend university. As a result university didn’t feel natural to me. I’m getting used to it, but working in an office sometimes still doesn’t feel natural to me. When I got my first office job, I remember sitting there in terror trying to figure out what I should be doing (at least in factories, I knew if I started sweeping the floor it looked like I was doing something).
To this day, when I’m at work, I sometimes get the feeling that I’m missing something. One day the boss is going to come up and ask for all the TPS reports I haven’t submitted in over the past five years and when I don’t have them, it will become obvious that I’ve been faking competency all this time.
In contrast, when I am finished home brewing, I know if my beer is good or not. If I did a good job or not. That’s not always as obvious in an office job.
We’re made to make things, but without a tangible end product, we can wonder if we’re making something well. If part of your self-esteem comes from doing a good job at work, this can be difficult.
As a result, some of us do odd things like make our own beer when the LCBO is just up the street or pickle things when pickled food tastes awful. When we’re finished, we know we accomplished something and know whether we produced something we can be proud of.