Work and The Desire to be More than Myself
The alarm goes off at 6:30, the dim blue light of dawn pouring in through the crack in my window blinds. I hit snooze a couple of times, letting my phone vibrate on my wooden bookshelf before I feel compelled to pull myself out of bed. The exhaustion of getting up too early hits me like a brick wall as I shuffle from bedroom to bathroom, to kitchen, stopping at the hallway pantry closet to grab the bag of cat treats to appease my old man of a cat. He’ll munch on them while I make my tea for the morning, prepare some breakfast, possibly lunch if I feel compelled, before heading back in the direction of my bedroom and bathroom to get cleaned and dressed for my shift at work.
I work at a pharmacy — a shift supervisor for the front end of the store. More often than not, I am delegated to do the job of my team lead, which means I have to open the store, prepare all the documents, sort our bank deposits, and generally keep the store moving. All the while, the incompetence of my lower management oppresses me, enwraps me in negativity and petty gossip — all of which I find draining. There is a cohort of people my age who work or suffer, depending on who you ask, in the store, whether as fellow supervisors, receivers, or simply cashiers. Our gripes are the same. We find the work draining and unfulfilling, feeling exhausted and trapped in positions we find no joy in, constantly searching for our opportunity to escape.
The feeling of desperation to flee our draining jobs has only been expedited during the summer and an overwhelming third wave lockdown in the wake of the Delta variant of Covid landing on our doorstep this past May. And as school came to a close for the summer, and people had more time to work, not burdened by studies, it became clear that the store had reached the peak of its inefficiencies and that management had reached the pinnacle of incompetence.
In short, I have outgrown the place and find the work no longer attractive, if I ever really did, and feel simultaneously stuck and embarrassed at where I have found myself ten months after graduating with my master’s degree. I am stuck in the job I had in High School and much of my undergrad. I thought I was free from the job when I moved to Ontario for a year before being forced to return home as the pandemic raged, the economy collapsed, and I had a thesis to finish. To return to the store was a resort to pay bills and get a headstart on some debt — I wasn’t getting hired anywhere else, not in the fields I wanted anyway, and they could only promise a small number of hours a week. I figured the balance would be alright. I had to return to live with my parents for the short term anyway, so my expenses were minimal. A year later, I have become, in essence, what I had never wanted to become: a highly educated cashier.
To say this isn’t the kind of work I want to do with the rest of my life is an understatement. However, this is not to diminish retail and service work. I have worked there for five years. I know how hard some people work in it, how fulfilling some people find these kinds of jobs. If anything, the pandemic has revealed how necessary these jobs are. Things collapse without people running groceries stores and pharmacies, doing the work no one respects. I am on the other side of that, feeling the brunt of people’s disrespect, and all I can do is wordlessly mumble behind my mask, “asshole.” I advocate for the proper compensation for these service jobs, especially in the wake of the pandemic. These people who have risked their lives to serve these often unforgiving, selfish people deserve something more than minimum wage and abuse from managers and supervisors angry that someone dares call in sick.
This essay has turned into a rant, a very unintentional one. However, the point still stands, despite the value, these jobs have to society and how poorly those who work in them are treated, it is not a series of jobs that I find value in, especially for my personal growth. I have a master’s degree in history, I’m learning Russian, and my desire for my work lies in writing.
Part of the appeal of writing, or the journalistic style of writing I have become attracted to, is its impact on people. It is objectively essential to inform, discuss, and debate ideas in a public sphere. It allows perspectives to be considered and advanced, and ideally, new views are brought in to deepen the knowledge of those reading. In any sense, an impact is made, whether negative or positive, and there is immense power in that. Likewise, there is enormous power in the free exchange of ideas.
Work for me is fulfilling by the impact it can have on a larger scale. Larger in the sense that I am impacting more than solely myself. The idea of causing significant change through writing, while attractive, I am well aware, is a pipe-dream that few get to relish in. But even the ability to create a discussion is a powerful one, one that I believe few truly get to experience.
I had recently had a piece I had written on Queer experiences with Dungeons and Dragons picked up by a subreddit dedicated to Gamergate, KotakuInAction. It was clear many of them had only read the title of the article and were quite outraged by it. Going through the subreddit, I was struck with frustration at the lack of comprehension of what I argued, the lack of interest in the stories, and the cherry-picking of information solely to fester outrage and contempt. Still, there was a sense of victory attached to it, as well. I had created a response, although not the intended response, but a response nonetheless that had an audience. There was an impact.
The work with the most value and the kind that is most important to me is one that can have an impact in a variety of ways. I don’t manage this just through writing. My previous work as a teaching assistant at various universities has been as fulfilling as my writing work, if not more so. You see the growth of people immediately. Whether going through edits, explaining a difficult point, or guiding someone in the right direction with a great idea but struggling with an essay — there is something almost electric in watching these small instances of growth in students. Much like getting a response in your writing, there is a sense of victory in seeing students’ successes. Of course, it comes with frustrations. Sometimes they don’t read your comments, their grades slip, they think you’re an enemy to their growth, but overwhelmingly the positives outweigh the negatives. This is the essence of personally fulfilling and impactful work that there need to be positives to the job that overwhelms whatever negatives the role provides.
To return to retail and service work, this idea is turned on its head to myself and many others. The negatives are often quite overwhelming. You lack control of your job, your work feels meaningless and unimpactful, and what impacts you cause, you don’t see them. In a Marxist sense, service work alienates you from your labour. You never experience the fruits of your labour, and your work life has little control. A colleague of mine came up to me one shift. We were both closing, and leaning against the wall in the back room, he laughed humourlessly that every time he walked into the store, he wanted to off himself. There were no perceived benefits to the job for him, the wage is laughable, the treatment by head office and management to their employees is petty at best, malicious at worst, and whatever kinship you make with coworkers does not save the feeling of dread. You come to work because you have to because we have bills you need to pay, rent, and a family. They keep you because of necessity. This doesn’t just apply to service work, but it is the experience I am most familiar with and where I can draw my anecdotes and metaphors.
As much as I don’t believe dream jobs exist, I think each person’s ideal job must be fulfilling. The strengths of the job need to shine through despite the minute weaknesses, but again, it all depends on what one values. It is annoying to argue that everyone’s ideal job experience is different. Still, in my experience, jobs where one is respected, can be impactful, and can have little victories should be strived for. You should learn something from your work. It should help you grow.
Despite word from many, the paycheque isn’t the only thing that needs to be considered. Whether or not you will be alienated from your failures and successes is one that will make or break whatever role you find yourself. Part of my desire for impactful work is to be remembered, whether by a small group of people or many, whether the impact is large or small, which is crucial to me in my work, is a desire to touch something more than myself.