Today, Robert Mixa offers his insights on our culture's tendency to link the pursuit of a career with the pursuit of happiness.
The career has become a focal point of self-identity and life fulfillment for many educated, upper/middle-class Americans. Refusing to delve into the struggle of genuinely thinking about the sort of life most worth living, our culture has placed the career as today’s quick answer to the perennial questions of ‘what should I do with my life?’ and ‘what should I live for?’ While it is good to be engaged in your job, it becomes problematic when life’s meaning is placed primarily in it, elevating it to the level of ultimate concern. This is an expectation the job will never fulfill. Augustine said, "Love God, then do what you want." But contemporary America tells us, "Establish a career before anything else!" With this is the assumption that human dignity is based on what you do and where you got your degree. People feel entitled to a meaningful career, for without it they are “nobodies.” With no trustworthy guide to the good life, the post-modern world has turned to the career as the means to a fulfilling life. However, this seems to me to be a lie. People want many things, but, in the end, they want love and participation in a mission that reaches beyond them. A career does not provide this; the Church does, for the Church orientates and immerses humanity in the Good that is always beyond the horizon of immediate needs.
Nevertheless, people do not believe this Good exists. From the crib to college, children are conditioned to believe that, by finding a career that fits them, they will find bliss, very much like the romanticism of dating – “if only I find Mr. Right, I will be happy.” In her book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, Kay S. Hymowitz has some interesting things to say about the romanticism of work, primarily among women. While it seems Hymowitz believes it is primarily a female phenomenon, I think it encompasses both genders. She quotes Claudia Glodin’s comments about the “quiet revolution” that took place in the 1970s as women entered the work force in big numbers: “It was a change from agents who work because they and their families ‘need the money’ to those who are employed, at least in part, because occupation and employment define one’s fundamental identity and societal worth. It involved a change from ‘jobs’ to ‘careers.’” This “quiet revolution” represents a shift in how people value themselves. Self-value is now intimately tied to the job. I wonder how careerists are doing in today's economy. If the good of a career can be swept away so quickly, what is there to build one’s life upon?
Our culture does not have a contemplative spirit at its roots. Rather, I believe, it is based in a mindless activity that animates people’s lives towards nothing. The current mentality is that it is better to be doing something than thinking about the best thing to do. Many people assumed the same conception of the good life because of the cultural influence of Christianity. But the rejection of Christianity in America has caused a big problem. We used to have a cultural structure in play that orientated lives towards the good without requiring many people to give much thought about it. However, with the collapse of the Christian framework the culture has been caught in activities that lack transcendent purpose. It does not have a horizon of goods that extend beyond the immanent. This set the stage for the career to take the center of a person’s life.
While one factor is not the sole cause of the cultural collapse to the immanent frame, I believe parents have played an important role in this. Children learn from their parents. In my opinion, some parents tend to immerse their children in a plethora of activities lacking ultimate significance. For example, I teach a CCD class in which kids are always being dismissed to attend some activity. While the class is learning about Christ (our ultimate concern), some parent is driving their kid to the next diversion. Activity fills these kids lives, but for what purpose? Parents partake in the resume-building lifestyle by driving their children to dozens of activities they think will help them live a good life. They sit their children down and teach them how to make short-, medium- and long-term goals, instructing them how to plan and become the author of their lives. But what seems to be lacking is a substantive conception of what the good life is, beyond having a “successful” career.
I do not blame parents. They are looking out for the interests of their children entering into an economy in which the only weapon of survival is the resumé, strategic planning skills and ambition. So why not ensure they have the best means of survival? But I think parents need to start questioning the charged and planned lifestyle they are immersing their children in. If we recognize that a life filled with activities of immanent purpose is lacking something significant, we will be less prone to habituate our children to lead such a lifestyle. We will only be fulfilled if we direct ourselves to the transcendent. So introduce your children to Christ by taking them to Mass and let the activities follow. If they know that their worth and happiness is based in love (that fundamental reality that both gives and embraces their lives), they will know that their identity and fulfillment lie beyond the career. We desperately need this today or else the mentality of the career will overtake everything. Life cannot be absorbed in immanent activities and measured by “success.” There must be room for the transcendent in order to experience the joy and relief of not being the sole author of our lives.
Robert Mixa is a Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.