Is a “dream job” just “capitalistic conditioning”?

This tweet raises a few questions:
  • Is working for the rest of one’s life a worthy goal?
  • Is work depressing? Should we strive for a life of work or something else?
  • Do “dream jobs” exist, and should we try to pursue them?
  • Is the idea of a “dream job” a form of “capitalistic conditioning”?
First, let’s consider the facts. 92% of Americans are satisfied with their job, and 57% said their job provides a sense of identity, while 40 percent said their job was just what they did for a living. Most people enjoy working to some extent, even if there is a large portion that isn’t. But maybe that is just “capitalistic conditioning”?
There are religious and philosophical perspectives on work, but let’s start with the facts: first, that human beings must work to live, and second, that the labor of others must first create all goods and services we consume. Until we invent robots capable of automating the economy, most people must labor for a large portion of their lives to enable our current living standard.
Faced with these facts, we have two options: to accept our share of responsibility in making human life possible or to try to shirk that responsibility and mooch off the labor of others. In this matter, I believe two things:
first, that we have a responsibility to create value for others
and second, that we have a right to enjoy the product of values that we create
This is a moral philosophy and observation of human nature: we thrive best when life balances work and play. Working all the time is a recipe for misery, but so is unlimited leisure.
While it is true that work is rewarding for many, we should also admit that it isn’t automatically rewarding. Not all work is enjoyable or meaningful. When I was in high school, I worked as a grocery store bagger for a short time. I enjoyed it and took pride in being the fastest bagger in the store. But I knew that it was just a teenage job for a year or two. If I had to bag groceries, or serve fast food, or work on a factory line for the rest of my life, I’d be miserable.
Under an industrial capitalist economy, many jobs are boring and meaningless. This is not unique to capitalism: there has been tedious, repetitive work as long as there have been humans. The difference with capitalism is that we can now appreciate that it doesn’t have to be so. Capitalism has created sufficient wealth to give us visible examples of intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, and others who need not perform any manual or rote labor. We complain because we know there is an alternative to boring jobs. Zebras don’t complain that they have to search for grass to eat all day, and lions don’t complain that they have to hunt all the time, but humans have noticed that some jobs are more interesting than others.
Capitalist economies have now been accumulating productivity-enhancing productive capital (factories, machines, tools, and more) for several hundred years, and the percentage of “fun” jobs keeps growing. In the distant past, 100% of people were hunter-gatherers. A few hundred years ago, 98% of Americans were subsidence farmers. Today, the vast majority of Americans need not perform any hard labor in our work. If we allowed them too, entrepreneurs would eventually create sufficient wealth and technology that all the “boring” jobs will be automated.
First, we invented the tool to amplify our muscles. With tools, we built machines to replace our muscles. Now we are building automatons to augment and replace our minds, and when we complete the transition, our mere wishes will turn desires into reality.
Boring jobs are a temporary feature as capitalist economies from pre-industrial to industrial to post-industrial information societies. For the vast majority of people, boring jobs ought to be a transitional feature during their lifetime. As we gain skills, we ought to grow in our careers to the best of our abilities.
I think this is where “capitalistic conditioning” goes wrong. It’s not capitalistic at all, but a derivation of the Prussian education system, which created the factory model of schooling to indoctrinate obedient factory workers and soldiers into obeying their orders. The capitalist model is the opposite of this mindset: an entrepreneurial attitude that focuses on personal experiences, local problems and opportunities, spontaneous order, and that questions all orthodoxy in search of innovation and profit.
I believe that a career progression ought to have two goals:
first, to reach a level of mastery where the challenge is entirely creative,
and second to build sufficient labor that any additional work is performed for its own sake rather than because we need the income.
This applies to all work. Regarding the first goal, consider an athlete. Superficially, the labor of an athlete is hugely physical. In the beginning, a junior athlete works at a physical level at the direction of a coach. However, as they develop, their physique is mastered, and more and more attention is directed to the mental aspect: the training regime, technique, and the inner mental game that makes a champion. Eventually, they may become a team lead, coach, or narrator of the sport.
Regarding the second goal, I remember many times when I felt tired of being a software developer. I enjoyed some aspects of my work, but I worked on many projects I had little interest in. However, from the age of 15, I had a goal of reaching financial independence. By my late 30’s, I accumulated enough passive income to ensure that I would never need to work to meet my family’s basic needs. Any additional labor I perform for the rest of my life will either afford a luxury or because the work is worthwhile in itself. If my investments are successful, even my luxuries will be covered by passive income, and I will only take on projects that I find meaningful and rewarding.
Today, I work as CTO, leading teams to build products I believe in. I wanted to be a CTO since I was a junior in college after I realized that a career as an aerospace engineer or an economist was not for me. My job is not perfect, and it’s not always fun, but I would like to do something very much like it, even if I wasn’t paid to do it, and I think that qualifies as a dream job.
I’ll close with a question for Awlmond – what is the alternative to a life of work?
Consumerism? Will you enjoy the goods and services that other people spend their life creating?
Political activism? Will you spend your time destroying the work others have created? (This is not to say that there are not causes worth supporting or institutions worth destroying, but life must be primarily about creation, not criticism, and creation is much harder.)
Artistry? With no meaningful struggle, what experience will your art be about?
Meditation? What will be the object of your mediation? What inner conflict will you seek to resolve?
Friendship? What will your conversations be about? What struggles will you bond over with friends?
There are many ways to view work, but ultimately, an unproductive life will leave you an empty shell of a human being.