»  The Straggler, No. 61

December 3rd, 2007

  It's a Living

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The other day I met a very bright and beautiful young woman who had been introduced to me as "a dating columnist." As an old married guy, I am long past the dating stage of life, and our encounter was on far less intimate terms, but I was curious to know what a dating columnist does. "Well," she explained helpfully, "I go on dates. Then I write about them."

As Carlyle said: Blessed is he who has found his work. And what a variety of work there is in this postindustrial society! A glance through the postings on Craigs List, a popular help-wanted website, turns up dozens of job titles whose manner of contributing to the Gross National Product one can only guess at: Infotainment engineer; Barista; Supply Chain Specialist; Dependency Resource Coordinator; Flash Developer; UI Designer; Data Miner; Phlebotomist; Esthetician … What do these people do for their weekly paycheck? Is a Barista related in any way to the portly gents in horsehair wigs who plead for their clients in English courtrooms? Does a Supply Chain Specialist specialize in supplying chains, or in chaining supplies? Do Data Miners have lamps on their hats? Esthetician I think I get: since a Mortician deals with dead people (Latin mors, mortis — death), an Esthetician's clients are presumably beautiful people (Greek aisthetes  one who perceives, with the common extension to sensual appreciation), or people who wish to be made beautiful — something to do with cosmetics or personal training, perhaps.

For a really luxuriant proliferation of job titles, Ed Biz is the place to go. My daughter's modest suburban high school held an orientation session for parents of freshmen a few weeks ago. There we all were in the school auditorium, facing a phalanx of school employees up on the stage … none of whom was a teacher. Administrators, Directors, Advisors, Psychologists, a Dean, five guidance counselors (under, of course, a Director of Guidance), Administrative Assistants … All this for eleven hundred students. I cornered the Director of Mathematics, a very cordial fellow, to ask if he himself did any, you know, teaching. No, he regretted to say, he didn't. No time!

At colleges this is all raised to the fourth power. I wrote some commentary on the recent news item about residence-hall indoctrination sessions in political correctness at the University of Delaware. By way of background, I waded into their website. There were the university employees, smiling out at me from the thumbnail pictures in their little biographies on the site: the Director for Residence Life, with — of course! — her Associate Director and three Assistant Directors; the Assistant Vice President for Affirmative Action and Multicultural Programs; the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and International programs; the Assistant Vice President for Labor Relations and Human Resources, … and so on, and on, down through the administrative food chain to lowly Financial Aid Advisors and Assistant Librarians. I have seen it written somewhere that a typical big American university has more administrators running it than had British India. This may well be true.

And why not, after all? The Chinese philosopher Shang Yang (4th century B.C.) taught that there were no worthwhile occupations other than farming and fighting. He grudgingly admitted that a nation needs a ruler, but believed that if the laws are properly devised and enforced, the ruler will have nothing to do. Still less does it need politicians.

The means, whereby a country is made prosperous, are agriculture and war. Now, those who seek office and rank, never do so by means of agriculture and war, but by artful words and empty doctrines.
                     — The Book of Lord Shang, I.iii (tr. J.J.L. Duyvendak)

Speaking as a person who made a poor soldier and would likely fare even worse as a farmer, I am glad that Shang Yang's doctrines did not prevail. Those faces smiling out from the thumbnail pictures on the University of Delaware website all look like terrifically nice people. Probably they have children to feed and mortgage payments to meet. Probably they have no more inclination to farming or fighting than I have. Why should they not have jobs to go to? "Pasture for all the sheep," as Sir Robert Walpole used to say of political patronage.

In fact, though I think a fully Shangian reductionism was never attained anywhere in historical times — even steppe nomads had their shamans and tent-makers — job categories were few over large parts even of the Western world until recently. Researching the lives of 19th-century mathematicians, who had a marked tendency to be the offspring of country pastors, I was struck by the poverty of employment choices for persons in Europe at that time. Outside the great metropolitan centers, if you were not a peasant or an aristocrat, you were a doctor, a clergyman, or an artisan. This state of affairs continued until well within living memory. Here is Ireland during the 1920s, from Anthony Cronin's biography of Flann O'Brien: "Ireland had few institutions of any size. Even in the British days, a job under the government' had been looked on as the solution for most of life's difficulties." For big swathes of the human race, in Ireland and elsewhere, it still is.

There is, I think, a common tendency, especially among conservatives, to deplore the fact that so few of us are employed at making things or growing things. There is something naggingly ignoble about a nation of paper shufflers and "symbol manipulators," Administrative Assistants and Dependency Resource Coordinators. Instead of turning raw materials into structured objects, or soil and sunlight into food, most of us seem to be increasing local entropy — creating busyness and disorder where once all was stasis and simplicity.

No doubt an economist would dismiss this as idle prejudice, pointing to the security and prosperity of our lives as proof that what is, is good. I suppose he would be right, and I don't really begrudge that young lady her work as a "dating columnist." Probably any one of our ancestors — those unnumbered multitudes of peasants, soldiers, artisans, and priests — would have given a limb to work as an Esthetician or Associate Director for Residence Life, with a cozy cubicle in an air-conditioned office. We are blessed, blessed. If we sometimes find ourselves wondering whether the thing we are paid for doing, is worth doing — well, that self-doubt is most likely just another luxury we can afford in our luxurious, secure, glutted lives.