The Happy Worker

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 30, 2011

Before the Industrial Revolution the occupational future of many people was very limited. Most men inherited farms or businesses from their fathers, or they became apprentices or laborers for other people; whichever field a person went into, though, was usually given rather than chosen. Women were destined to be wives and caretakers of children; few could find occupations out of the home beyond midwifery. Because of this setup, few people probably had serious thoughts about what they wanted to become in life. For most people of the past, the dreams of success were either daydreams with no hope of fulfillment or dreams that had very little to do with the kinds of dreams that we might seriously entertain today.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution we have been changing culturally, moving further and further from the old way of entering the workforce. Children are rarely educated in apprenticeship now, and students are forced to attend schools for many years of their lives in the hopes that they will become broadly educated, thus exposing their particular strengths, skills, interests and talents. Our system hopes to prepare students to find their occupational niches so that they can make the best out of their lives.

That is the hope of the system. But as you begin to turn the system over in your mind, it seems that those hopes may be only so much idealism. When you begin to see how many students come out of schooling totally unaware of their talents, totally devoid of direction and self-confidence, you begin to wonder exactly how better off we are than people in the past for our freedom to choose work.

While people of the past had very restricted choice in their occupations, the modern person is at the mercy of his ability to find what he likes to do. For those people who cannot figure out what they want to do in life, there is essentially nothing different for them than for those who never did have a choice in work. Both situations require people to employ themselves with work regardless of their disposition towards it for the simple necessity of making enough money to live on. There are likely more disgruntled workers in our age than there ever were before, despite our freedoms to choose our occupations.

The current freedom of choice in the marketplace is not so free as we would all like to think, either. Increasingly, our society has been restricting the worker’s choice by imposing educational requisites on almost all jobs that are requiring skill above manual labor. At the beginning of the 1900s a person of ability could usually get into a field regardless of the credentials he had if he only proved his worth. The attitude of employers has changed, though, since then. Employers expect prospective employees to have a BA or MA for serious consideration at this stage in our society.

That credentials and diplomas are used for consideration is only natural, but to require them for employment is a restrictive imposition on the worker. It forces people to spend so many more years and extra money obtaining certification for jobs that might not truly need those certifications. When we consider some of the brilliant men of past ages, who never had our kinds of formal education and/or never knew of many of the things our schools teach, it becomes obvious that all this fancy education is a lot of fluff. Certainly, though this is merely mental play, we would want to have Thomas Jefferson working in politics today even though he would, on arrival, know nothing of genetics, the Cold War or paradigms.

The primary issue is that most people are not happily employed. They work to make a living, and if they are lucky enough to ignore their disdain and just accept the fact, then they can survive outside of work with a level of happiness. But not everyone is able to do that. A person who wants to make his living as a pilot will be a little disgruntled with his occupation as a hamburger maker. He could take the necessary steps by going to school and learning how to fly, and he may find that he is an exceptional pilot. Still, he could easily find that the market is saturated with pilots, and all his specialized training becomes essentially useless, and the man finds himself back in the hamburger joint. His only consolation, perhaps, is that with his degree he gets a couple steps higher in the ladder of command.

A question that looms heavily above us is how do we find emotionally satisfying occupations? Not everyone can be a political leader, since we only need so many politicians. Not everyone can make money playing basketball since most of us aren’t that entertaining in that field. In order for society to run, there have to be many people filling various roles, and for the sake of statistics, there will always be more people employed in lines of work that don’t find great satisfaction than those that do. What we want to know, as students of society that want to find the greatest level of happiness, is how to lessen this burden of displaced employment. Someone needs to figure this out.

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