Worker’s Dilemma

A former first-year student of mine, about to graduate during the Covid-19 pandemic, emailed me recently since we will miss the chance to talk face-to-face before graduation. This student was incredibly kind about the role I played in their undergraduate journey, offering this as well: “I came to you with concerns over a major sophomore year, and instead of lecturing me you asked me what my dream job was.”

This student made some dramatic changes to their life and college career then, and now, I think is on a path that will be far more fulfilling. But this situation plays out over and over, and quite differently, at my selective, small liberal arts university.

The students at my university are often socially and economically conservative, or at least come from homes that are socially and economically conservative. These students are keenly aware of viewing a college education in terms of return on investment.

In other words, is there major going to lead to a career that justifies the price tag of those four years (and often the additional years of graduate school that follow)?

More often than not, I interact with students who want to follow their bliss, but their parents want them to respect their investment—by preparing for a high-paying career.

My journey to and through college was quite different in most ways than the students I teach. I grew up in a white Southern working-class home, where my parents’ generation was just beginning to tip-toe into college but had firmly accepted that college was an essential goal for their children.

My mother completed only one year of junior college, where my father finished both years. But four-year college was rare throughout both sides of their families, although college was part of the aspirational narrative that all of my family voiced and instilled in me.

I had no knowledge of concepts such as return on investment, but my academic journey was a given that included going to college and turning that degree into a stable career.

Although I fumbled with deciding on a major throughout my first two years (also attending the junior college my parents had)—from physics to pre-law to architecture—by the time I transferred to a satellite campus of the state university, I was staring at needing to commit fully to the sort of major and career that justified my parents paying for my college experience.

I am not entirely sure why, but I always felt deeply obligated to my parents and their funding my college (although I did earn several academic scholarships along the way and also tutored for additional income). I had grown up in a home where school was first, athletics second, and as long as I attended to these commitments, then I was not asked to work or “pay my way” in much of anything (although I did hold jobs throughout the summers and into college).

As I entered my junior year, although I wanted to major in English, I was acutely aware that this sort of major wasn’t practical (no one expressed that to me, not even my parents) so I chose to be a secondary (English) education major to become a high school teacher.

This meant that I sat in English courses (taking far more than was required to certify) where the professors routinely identified me as education, not a real English major. Because I graduated in December, I immediately entered an MEd program (more practicality since that insured a pay raise) that spring before becoming a full-time high school English teacher that coming fall.

A bit over a decade later, I continued that trend by entering an EdD program, earning my doctorate in 1998. That entire journey consisted of academic choices made at the margins of bliss, grounded always solidly in being practical.

You see, I had not lived the comment that I made years ago to my student.

I am very fortunate and happy to have had a career as a teacher; it has been a fulfilling dream career. But I consider myself a teacher and a writer, with the latter always lurking in shadows and being tended only secondarily and gradually as my life became more and more conducive to that dream deferred (moving to higher education was a huge boost to being a writer, but greater and greater financial stability has been significant as well).

My student I reference above has been on my mind as I have witnessed the disturbing reality of being a worker in the U.S.—emphasized by the pandemic that has stressed our medical system, exposed the failures of private work-based health insurance, and tossed people out of their jobs and careers.

In the U.S. (to the bafflement of much of the rest of the world), most people have their health insurance and retirement anchored to their jobs—being a worker is a necessity to have what many would consider essential elements of being fully human in 2020.

The pandemic has not only unmasked how inhumane these practices are, but even when stimulus legislation was passed, much of the money to help people remained grounded in the people who were (or had been) workers.

Even as the stimulus money is dripping out to individuals through the lump-sum check and funds added to unemployment, many conservatives on social media are lamenting that these “handouts” are proving that government money just makes people lazy. The mainstream media are playing right along by posting several stories in which small business owners are complaining that their workers are making more unemployed than when they were working.

Here is something I think many are missing about the $600 per week addition to unemployment: Political leaders of both parties were so eager not to send large lump payments to all citizens ($2400 stimulus checks not linked to unemployment, doubling the current stimulus amount) that they chose a process that has had unintended and negative consequences.

The bad policy and bad politics coming out of the Covid-19 crisis is not driven by good economic policy or even concern for the common good; the bad policy and bad politics are the consequence of a bad and paradoxical mythology.

The first part of that mythology is that to be fully human in the U.S., you must be a worker. The big lie in that myth being debunked during the pandemic is that we are witnessing that the lowest paid, hardest working, and most exposed working conditions—hourly workers and the service industry, for example—are genuinely essential and the workers who are building and maintaining the U.S.—not the CEOs, billionaires, or political leaders.

Along with service workers, health care providers and teachers now sit far more prominently in the minds of people about what sort of workers matter, what sort of workers have the kinds of work conditions and obligations that many people would prefer to avoid.

The second part of the mythology is a paradox, a cruel and ugly paradox: Workers’ lives don’t matter, actually, but being a worker is dangled before the public as a possible way to become what does really matter—being rich and powerful.

The cruel and ugly part is almost no one will ascend to rich and powerful because almost everyone who is rich and powerful had most of that gifted, not earned.

The rugged individual who built his empire completely on his own is a bald-faced lie, a saccharine libertarian fantasy.

We should not be rushing to get back to normal once we find some handle on the Covid-19 crisis because normal in the U.S. means that everyone must be a worker to even have a shot at being fully human.

Our normal democracy has been held hostage by a false truth we hold as self-evident. We deserve a new normal in which basic human dignity is the given and our lives as workers are a part of that but a part that is properly supported by our government and our economic system.

It should not be normal that wait staff must depend on tips.

It should not be normal that you have to work to have health care and retirement.

It should not be normal that minimum wage means that you cannot afford housing, food, and essentials.

It should not be normal that you have to choose between your health and keeping your job.

It should not be normal that a billionaire class continues to feed on the labor of the masses who are systematically being denied their humanity.

I am happy that my former student feels connected to a life and career in part because we talked and he thought differently about who he was and who he wants to be.

I am nervous about the possibility that after Covid-19 we will in fact return to normal where workers’ lives don’t matter.