The flowery language of the United States Declaration of Independence would have you believe that human life has an inherent value, one that includes inalienable rights such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But in America, a major indicator of value is actually placed on being a productive member of society, which typically means working a job that creates monetary revenue (especially if the end result is accumulated wealth and suffering was inherently involved in the process). “Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” being a “self-made” man or woman, and “rags to riches” stories permeate our collective consciousness, creating an overarching culture that links work, jobs and money to morality and value. The system of higher education has also been tied to this toxic concept, as we have equated more education to being better qualified for said jobs. And so the equation becomes: more education leads to more jobs, which leads to more earned and accumulated revenue, which leads to more “value.”
The flip side of this, of course, is that in our collective consciousness, those who don’t or are otherwise unable to accumulate more education or to work a job – aka generate capital – have no value. They do not deserve life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. And this falls in a long tradition of the malleable nature of these ideals, wherein certain people deemed unworthy are left out of those creeds: the millions of Black Americans that were enslaved when the Declaration of Independence was written, the decimated Indigenous American population, and women of all races, for example.
If you can afford to attend undergraduate and then graduate collegiate programs without taking out excessive student loans, work unpaid internships, or draw on nepotism for job offers (according to Linkedin, 85% of jobs are filled through internal referrals and networking), congratulations- you are already in a place of privilege, and your proximity to that privilege imbues you with a certain amount of societal value. But people that do not have access to those things are left to rely on predatory and ever-mounting student loans to pay inflated tuition prices, starve their way through internship programs, or aggressively compete with hundreds of other applicants for fewer and fewer jobs. And if you are lucky enough to grasp that one in a hundred job, our society deems it as because you worked harder than everyone else, were tougher than everyone else, and therefore, have more value.
We must begin to find value within ourselves completely independent of any designated social contracts or preexisting structures.
Since higher education was pushed so aggressively, a bachelor’s degree is quickly becoming the equivalent of a high school diploma, with increasing amounts of qualified applicants applying for jobs that are not growing at the same rate. And automation continues to impact the job market, decimating blue-collar jobs such as truck driving, cashiers and factory work that historically had only required a high school diploma.
So what does being a “productive member of society” look like when the future arrives where there is little in the way of gainful employment? How, then, will we assign value?
The world as we know it is rapidly changing. We must begin to find value within ourselves completely independent of any designated social contracts or preexisting structures; education should be in favor of the acquisition of knowledge for the greater good of the collective society, as well as for our own individual betterment, while jobs and work should become things we do either because we enjoy them or, at the very least, things we merely ‘do’ in order to survive in a capitalist society. Jobs and education should not be who we are, nor should they be our markers of value.
In many ways, the Internet serves as a great equalizer for the changing face of work. Freelancers and open-concept barter and trade apps allow people to sell goods and services directly to prospective customers. The rise of artist-based platforms like Society 6 and Etsy, along with donation-based sites like Patreon and live-streaming platform Twitch have also produced a wave of full-time artists who manage to create for a living, thanks to the support of patrons and regular customers.
Suddenly, “hobbies” that we love can become “jobs,” eviscerating much of the notion that work has to be something you suffer through. Trade programs are also growing in popularity as opposed to traditional college, with hundreds of thousands of attendees earning qualifications in practical trades like construction, plumbing and electrical work; skills that are always necessary and very hard to automate. With the growth of trade schools, freelancing, other alternative job markets and education models, there isn’t even a need for a job to provide you with a 401k or insurance plan as a marker of value anymore: independent services are stepping up to the plate to provide everything from solo 401k plans to private insurance providers, like the tech-based insurance company Oscar. Small businesses focusing on creating bonds with regular clientele rather than rapidly and incessantly increasing their consumer base are able to stay afloat by the revenue generated by return customers.
We are told that our ability to generate capital for a capitalist society is what determines our value, otherwise we are pointedly worthless.
The system itself does not work in our favor; in one of the richest nations in the world, with a hyper concentration of wealth in the narrowest of circles — built largely off of the free labor of chattel slavery and continued with the billions of dollars generated by prison labor — there is so much wealth that could easily be distributed in the form of a Universal Basic Income or universal healthcare. But instead we are told to worship the free market, to assign our value to jobs, and to chain ourselves to a capitalist hierarchy that actively encourages wealth hoarding, creating a permanent underclass.
We enter into this social contract at roughly the age of 18, where we are required to generate capital – aka work — in order to survive, but we are not, or no longer, promised anything in return. We’re not guaranteed healthcare. We’re not guaranteed jobs. We’re not guaranteed an education. We’re not guaranteed a basic income. We’re not guaranteed a living wage. Even when you get a tax return it’s a return on money you’ve already paid to the government. Yet we are told that our ability to generate capital for a capitalist society is what determines our value, otherwise we are pointedly worthless. If we cannot create capital, for ourselves and for others, and simultaneously plug that capital back into the system via our circular and intravenous “free market,” then we have no value.
Of course there are downsides: delivery apps and ridesharing services like GrubHub and Uber, while allowing people to work whenever they want, however they want, wherever they want, still suffer from capitalist hierarchal structures that subject them to customer abuse, lack of support, poor workplace culture and often require them to work longer and longer hours for less pay. And so even as we change the workface, many toxic ways of thinking replicate themselves. We need to find a way to stand together as individuals and band together in larger, stronger, more influential groups so that no corporation can continue, as they have throughout history, as is their nature, to suck us vampirically dry, i.e. virtually dead.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and community has always sprung up to serve those in need. Now more than ever we must assign ourselves value based on things that we love to do, on the “jobs” that allow us to do the things that we love to do, and on doing work with the people we love to be with. From utilizing work shares and barter and trade systems in order to exchange skills and services, to supporting small businesses and independent contractors, we must reject the notion of systemic trappings of employment – cubicles and bosses and degrees — as being equivalent to “value.” The pooling of our resources not for monetary value, but for the greater good of all, is necessary to create systems that exist outside of capitalism and the free market. How can I help you? How can you help me? What can I teach you? What can you teach me? How can we share so that everybody eats, everybody learns, everybody works, without the eternal dangling carrot, the promise of more money or more degrees or a promotion? Then, and only then, will we be free.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, Ms. Sensei creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.
Featured image credit: Michael Coghlan