Refusing Meaningless Work

Four months ago, I spoke to Amy, a 33 year old Realtor living in the US. Amy immediately struck me as smart and focussed, she made me laugh and had a brilliant way of making incisive social critiques with her personal anecdotes and wry remarks.

The Curse of Careers Advice

At the beginning of the conversation, I asked her about how she went from ‘Amy who had never heard of a tiny house’ to ‘Amy who lives in a tiny house’. As is so often the case, the story begins with a feeling of disappointment with the status quo.

Amy had done all the things a person was supposed to do in order to be rewarded with health, wealth, and happiness – according to the combined fantasies of meritocracy and neoliberal capitalism.

Here, she describes her first memory of feeling like something was wrong with ‘all of this’:

I was very disenchanted with the ‘American Dream’. I remember being in high school and I took a career aptitude test that told me I should be a systems analyst for an HR company.

“I thought, that’s very specific. Also, what does that mean? We still don’t know. But I was devastated, I remember just sitting there and holding this piece of paper and that was the first time that it kind of dawned on me that school was preparing me for the for a job. Just for a job. 

And I guess in the back of my head I had thought that after school I would have the rest of my life to live, and I remember making this very fervent wish the universe that I wanted to make a living, living. I wanted to spend my life living.”

Why We Work

It’s not just practical to have a job, our employment is used as a social shorthand to position us in a hierarchy of wealth, power, and status. 

Our job title is imbued with a mythic power to reveal a full synopsis of what is worth knowing about us. It is why the agonising question of ‘What do you do?’ is so often one of the first we get asked when we meet new people. Amy clarifies this point:

“It is moral to have a job.  You are an upstanding citizen if you have a good job.  If you don’t want to work you’re like trash, and it’s not that I don’t want to work, it’s that I want to pursue meaningful work.

I was very upset by this idea that my life was going to be passing me by while I was in a cubicle doing work that wasn’t meaningful, with health that was deteriorating, and people promising me that at the end you would get to retire.

I was living in California which was a very, very, very expensive place to live, and I saw people in their 60s, 70s, even upwards of 70s that were not retired and they were like ‘Oh, I’m almost there!’ and  I was like oh my god just quit lady you’ve got maybe 45 minutes left on this Earth.”

Pay vs Meaning

Like Amy, many of the women I speak to come to tiny houses as a way to prioritise meaning in their lives. The fact that the cost of living is so high and the level of wages for meaningful work is so low puts many people into  position where they have to chose either a well paid job, or a meaningful one. Several million people on the planet do not get that choice at all.

When the pandemic struck, it was not six-figure-salary hedge fund managers or systems analysts for HR companies that kept us alive.

It was the cleaners, the carers, the supermarket workers. The low pay, low status jobs that are vital to the functioning of society. The people who are most likely to need to affordability that tiny houses can offer, but also among the least likely to be able to raise the capital required up front to build or buy one.

I am glad that Amy was able to buy her own tiny house and escape the fate she so dreaded, and I am wondering what we can do to enable more people to refuse the damning sentence of their own high-school carers advisor.