Monday, August 08, 2016

Character-building, character-limits

Given the longstanding WWPD fixation on scrappiness oneupmanship, I am, like Flavia, fascinated by the "first seven jobs" hashtag. My take on the hashtag - already known, I suppose, to my avid Twitter follower(s) - is that the whole thing's a bit... misleading? Prone to error by omission?

The gist of the exercise was - as Oliver Burkeman suggested - for people who are now prominent or at least successful to reveal the tremendous self-made climb it took for them to get where they are. As in, who'd have thought, little Jimmy who used to be a lifeguard is now a journalist/director/professor! Who indeed.

But the structure of it - the listing, context-free, of seven jobs, all within the 140-character Twitter limit - doesn't leave room for explanation. Nothing about how long the jobs were for; how they were gotten; whether they were needed (or about 'building character'); what age; etc., etc. The result is that the having-of-jobs - of jobs that would be, if held full-time by a 40-year-old, blue-collar - sounds scrappy. Never mind that having jobs in one's youth may indicate... privilege. Not always - anyone working full-time during college, as a 19-year-old, merits all the scrappiness points - but often. What certainly does suggest at least present-day comfort is the implicit tone - specifically, that there's no fear in anyone's list-presentation of ever having to return to any of those lines of work, because that?, that was ages ago, and trajectories go just the one way: up.

But this isn't about privilege, exactly, but rather meritocratic oneupmanship. It's about showing how impressive you are by explicitly juxtaposing where you are now with where you once were. And there can be good fun in that - I'm not above that behavior, not averse to pointing out, where appropriate, that I've gotten to (thus far) the book deal and manuscript stage of the book-publishing process not through connections, but through copious blogging, then freelancing, much of this time also spent teaching. I totally get the appeal - especially if you're someone others might assume caught certain specific breaks that you did not - of pointing out that you had to work for it.

The question, though, is who can't come up with a nice list of seven first jobs? Presumably, the thinking is (no, this isn't scientific) the actual rich people, who went instead from unpaid internships and/or grad programs straight to white-collar work. But wait! Rich kids aren't (generally) the ones taking unpaid internships! Once you stop and look at what the profile is for a successful, grown-up professional, it starts to seem not surprising in the least that those with impressive jobs and achievements today worked a variety of less-glamorous jobs an eternity ago.

So who is this eternally-glamorous person-of-straw against whom we the list-providers are implicitly comparing ourselves? My grand theory of all this goes as follows: In certain situations (media and academia Twitter come to mind), due to stratification and income inequality and so forth, the 'poor' kids are actually middle or upper middle class. I say this both because I've read those articles and because I was that kid. I could scrappiness-one-up classmates whose parents paid their rent after college, but - despite campus jobs that I got to put on my list, thank you very much - I was far from financially independent during college. There are people who don't ever work; they tend to be very poor and thus excluded, structurally, from the workforce, or very rich and busy providing entertaining friends-of-friends Facebook content via photos of their Floridian perma-vacations. And it's that latter group who are inspiring this batch of exuberant resentment.


Flavia said...


On Facebook, many people note that their jobs as dishwashers and corn-detasselers lasted all of two days. But on Twitter, it looks like they had this interesting and "authentic" series of jobs. I mean, if I TRY to construe my work life in the most intriguing terms possible, I can come up with things I left out of my post, but those were one-off, usually temp jobs that I did for a week, not things that had any kind of shaping effect (& certainly nothing I was doing to make ends meet or contribute to the family finances).

The exercise also elides how different family values come into play. In high school I knew kids from wealthy families--families that could foot the bill for a full four years at a private college--who still valued work, and made clear that the kid had to pay his own car insurance and gas and whatnot, so he held a long series of retail jobs. Whereas another kid from a stable but lower-middle-class background might have parents who told him his whole job was to focus on his studies and get into college, so his work history started later and maybe involved lots of library or lab jobs. Less "of the people" in appearance, but less privileged in reality.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes absolutely re: the... flexibility of these lists.

I wonder how much of this is intentional evasion, though, and how much is the nature of the exercise. (And thus, I think, its appeal.) If you go with the super-literal, super-thorough approach and really list the first seven times you were paid for some sort of labor, the list is likely to be more exciting (and, I suppose, to start younger) than if you stick with actual jobs. Meanwhile staying only with full-time, financial-independence-bringing jobs is in one sense more honest, but in another, gives the impression of having not worked earlier.

As for the relative privilege of the two types of kids you mention, I think there's something to this, but it's not always so straightforward. It's not unheard-of for the former scenario to lead to downward mobility (as when the kid from the rich family is better suited to those jobs than to school), and the latter to upward. In one sense, yes, the first kid has more unearned advantages. In another, though, a kid with academically-minded parents (I'm thinking of many of the immigrant families I knew in high school) has certain advantages that a kid with rich but 'character'-focused parents might not. Some, but yeah, in general, you're right that the rich kid has it easier and will probably come out ahead.

Flavia said...

Oh, yes--totally agreed about the end results not necessarily reflecting where the kid started out. That meshes with my experience as well. My point was just that, among the now-comfortably-off (who are, I think, mostly the ones doing the meme), the list doesn't necessarily reflect who actually came from a scrappy background, or the relative degrees of that scrappiness.

Which just returns us to the limitations of how we typically talk about class.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

In full and utter agreement!

All I can do is add (as I tried to, in a discussion about this on Twitter - not sure how well I conveyed this) that the very exercise is biased towards hearing from the not-as-scrappy. Yes, in a meritocracy, it's impressive to be self-made. Yes, some of this exercise was about solidarity and support among the self-made - and if the self-made wish to reassure one another and compare notes, fantastic. But people who actually are self-made will very often... not want to talk openly about their humble origins, because they feel (shouldn't but often do) ashamed of those origins. Whereas it's the people who secretly fear being thought spoiled who are most prepared to shout from the rooftops about that one time for five minutes when they were the server rather than the served.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"But people who actually are self-made will very often... not want to talk openly about their humble origins, because they feel (shouldn't but often do) ashamed of those origins. "

At the time of our twitter exchange I wondered whether our different views had something to do with our different ages-- and, secondarily, the different ages of the peers we were seeing do this. This line strengthens that hunch. I don't think that embarrassment outlives one's thirties, at the outside. And for people who've outlived it, the mutual reassurance I was talking about on twitter can be a real and enjoyable relief.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, I'm sure age enters into it on the shame front, and hadn't really thought about that. The closer you are to the age when snooty peers could conceivably fault you for having the wrong sneakers - and, more generally, the further you are from the age where your parents' socioeconomic class is (as vs impacts) your own - the more this will apply. Would the shift be at 40 give or take? Quite possibly!

What I don't think age impacts so much (now that I'm thinking this through) are the performative revisionist histories of well-off childhoods. There, what's at stake isn't an emotional relationship to one's actual youth, but concern about *current* professional self-presentation. And I don't think people generally age out of that, certainly not before retirement.