The social practice of self-betrayal in career-driven America

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Talbot Brewer writes: I don’t know how careers are seen in other countries, but in the United States we are exhorted to view them as the primary locus of self-realization. The question before you when you are trying to choose a career is to figure out “What Color is Your Parachute?” (the title of a guide to job searches that has been a perennial best seller for most of my lifetime). The aim, to quote the title of another top-selling guide to career choices, is to “Do What You Are.”

These titles tell us something about what Americans expect to find in a career: themselves, in the unlikely form of a marketable commodity. But why should we expect that the inner self waiting to be born corresponds to some paid job or profession? Are we really all in possession of an inner lawyer, an inner beauty products placement specialist, or an inner advertising executive, just waiting for the right job opening? Mightn’t this script for our biographies serve as easily to promote self-limitation or self-betrayal as to further self-actualization?

We spend a great deal of our youth shaping ourselves into the sort of finished product that potential employers will be willing to pay dearly to use. Beginning at a very early age, schooling practices and parental guidance and approval are adjusted, sometimes only semi-consciously, so as to inculcate the personal capacities and temperament demanded by the corporate world. The effort to sculpt oneself for this destiny takes a more concerted form in high school and college. We choose courses of study, and understand the importance of success in these studies, largely with this end in view.

Even those who rebel against these forces of acculturation are deeply shaped by them. What we call “self-destructive” behavior in high school might perhaps be an understandable result of being dispirited by the career prospects that are recommended to us as sufficient motivation for our studies. As a culture we have a curious double-mindedness about such reactions. It is hard to get through high school in the United States without being asked to read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye — the story of one Holden Caulfield’s angst-ridden flight from high school, fueled by a pervasive sense that the adult world is irredeemably phony. The ideal high school student is supposed to find a soul-mate in Holden and write an insightful paper about his telling cultural insights, submitted on time in twelve-point type with double spacing and proper margins and footnotes, so as to ensure the sort of grade that will keep the student on the express train to the adult world whose irredeemable phoniness he has just skillfully diagnosed. [Continue reading…]

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