“I got a real job.”
Having been out of the country for much of the summer, my friend’s roommate E said this in response to my empty “And what have you been up to?” offered to him upon my stopping at their house not long after I returned to Boston. He said it with the self-deprecating tone so necessary for us 20-somethings to preemptively defend ourselves from judgment about our poverty, so I paused to decide how to respond, then gave up and just laughed nervously. He’s more of an acquaintance than a friend, so to try to break down the assumptions of the unbearably annoying phrase ‘real job’ probably wouldn’t have been the best way to handle small talk.
The way ‘real job’ is used to distinguish from presumably ‘fake’ jobs is by referring to a never-explicitly-defined set of material and ideological markers: real jobs have salaries, have college majors relevant to them, involve computers, offices, button up shirts. But also, they have intellectual weight, challenge, provide subject fodder for a first date: in this sense, having a real job means you have thoughts and capabilities deemed desirable commodities to some opaque employer, the identity of whom is relatively unimportant compared to their willingness to give you this feeling of self-worth.
However, when E used it, he was distinguishing between under-the-table work he’d been doing when I left the country, and a coffee shop job he’d gained while I was away. This was unusual, in part because the rhetoric of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ jobs pervades the conversation of college graduates, a demographic often unlikely to acknowledge even the existence of jobs such as E’s ‘fake’ job. For them, being a barista is also a fake (imagined to be temporary) job.
The dissonance in E’s use of the phrase versus how I generally hear it used stuck with me long after our conversation ended. What’s in a ‘real’ job? Why do we, a generation with more college degrees and debt but less material security than those who came before us, feel compelled to further devalue our work, judging it by standards alien to our lives? Clearly, the implied standard if not actual rhetoric of a ‘real’ job is handed-down, our parents speaking through us, foisting mid-20th century golden age expectations onto our sagging shoulders.
This was certainly the case for me. Graduating top of my class from a major private university, I spent weeks sending off resumes for ‘real’ jobs. Having studied the (horribly reactionary) field of international relations, this meant jobs at think tanks, non-profits, policy journals. After waiting weeks, and then months, I had to admit to myself a glaringly obvious fact: I had no relevant experience for these jobs, which fit into the laugh-to-keep-from-crying category of the entry level job that requires years of experience. Presumably the way out of this Escherian-loop is an unpaid internship, a job category that desperately contradicts historical sociological research on what counts as a good job and what doesn’t, demanding unpaid labor in return for a ‘real,’ (read: interesting, creative, or exciting to tell someone else about) job, while serving to shore up class reproduction by separating those whose parents can fund them through months without a paycheck from those whose parents can’t. As a member of the latter group, I eventually acknowledged defeat and took a job in a cafe where my friend worked and could thus recommend me for an interview (because in a place like Boston, even the honor of pulling espresso shots often requires an ‘in’ of some sort).
It’s worth noting here the deeply gendered and racialized assumptions underlying ‘real’ vs ‘fake’ jobs. From what I’ve seen, this rhetoric of ‘real vs fake’ is overwhelmingly found coming from the college educated middle and upper class, dependent as it is upon a distancing of one’s (usually white) self from unworthy (black and brown) work. A real job instead enables you to be tended to by PoC who disproportionately populate the world of menial service work and physical labor. Here, I don’t mean the sorts of ‘fake’ jobs I’ve held, although those undoubtedly fall into the category of embarrassingly ‘not-real’ jobs too, but on the basis of their gendered rather than racialized logic. Indeed, the reason I can’t include ‘front of the house’ jobs here is because they consist of disproportionately white, rather than PoC, workers. This is because these sectors often discriminate based on appearance and social capital, hiring desirable ‘personalities’ that just so happen to be overwhelmingly normatively attractive white people (and from what I can tell, the dearth of studies on discrimination against fat, and particularly fat women, applicants in the high-end service sector, is a remarkable blindspot in research). I mean work in the fast food industry, domestic services, janitorial, and security work. The kind of labor done behind the scenes, in the dark, or at the least, with little conversation between worker and customer or client.
Similarly, the gendered implications of the term are striking: fake jobs are those that rely on emotional labor, requiring your smile, your ability to care or clean, your personality, your ‘presence’ (whatever this means); in short, your womanly body rather than your mind, a logic distinct from but deeply entangled with the racial discrimination detailed above. During the Keynesian era of a family wage, in which a husband was expected to provide for his family (an expectation by no means always fulfilled), these jobs were host to women entering the workforce supposedly to make side money, ease their boredom at home, or whatever other I Love Lucy style ideology might have been developed at the time to deny that women were working because they needed to for a variety of reasons. This allowed employers to offer wages far below what one would need to support oneself, not to mention a family. However, since the 2008 recession, these industries have grown at higher rates than just about any other in the United States, with men pouring into these gendered workplaces. Thanks to the lingering effects of the identification of service work as women’s work, pay in these sectors continues to be astonishingly low for workers of every gender, one example of the long-term negative repercussions gender inequality has on men in addition to women.
As for me, having gone into tens of thousands of dollars of debt in the hopes of developing my mind, after college, my body remained my most valuable attribute on the job market, a situation that, to delve into an aside, makes it incredibly difficult to gain redress for sexual harassment in these sectors: I’m not proud to admit that I left rather than fought against this problem at two separate ‘fake’ jobs I held. At the first, I let my manager (a young, Zooey Deschanel-looking white 20-something herself) know that one of the regulars refused to leave me alone on my precious fifteen minute break. She responded by telling me that she, too, had a customer who harassed her, and in fact, next time he was in she’d point him out to me, so that I wouldn’t tell him where she was if he asked after her (because, she confided, she hid in the kitchen whenever he was around). At the second, I had been hired as a hostess, but within hours of my first shift, a bartender had gotten aggressive enough in his harassment to prompt me to talk to the manager who had hired me. As soon as I stopped describing the bartender’s constant complimenting of my appearance, this manager responded without hesitation, “Well, that’s why we hired you. What you’re describing comes with the culture of restaurants.” While I was without a penny in my bank account at the time, I walked out the door in the middle of my shift, too frustrated to bother ever even demanding the twenty-or-so dollars I’d earned before quitting.
So, while I’d only ever had jobs like these, in restaurants and cafes, I’d always had the excuse of being in school, on my way to a real job. Now, post-B.A., I was simply an adult, commuting across the city to prepare Instagram-worthy latte foam for the moneyed customers to whom we catered. After a year of this, I decided to enter a PhD program, having realized I couldn’t produce the intellectual and political work I had hoped to do for free outside of the 35 hours a week of mind-numbing service work. As brilliantly detailed here, there’s a lot of animosity toward graduate students for being self-indulgent, going into a field with few future prospects for stability, with this blame assuming an opportunity cost forfeited for the sake of our wanting to pursue intellectually gratifying careers. For myself and many others lucky enough to have the option of entering a funded graduate program however, that simply is not how our employment prospects look today. I forfeited what I call a “standing up job” for my first “sitting down job” (a half-joke that fails to amuse some of my fellow graduate students, possibly because they did have white-collar work before choosing to enter a doctoral program, a path more in line with the picture sketched out by said critics of grad students). I forfeited nothing but the pastries I stole every day from work.
As a doctoral student, I make about the same as I did at restaurants and cafes. I don’t have a paycheck for nearly five months of the year. Paid vacation doesn’t apply. I’m not in a union, and have little recourse if I’m worked more hours than my financial package states I should be working. And yet, people around me consider it a ‘real’ job. Proof that I’m special, that my brain has value because the market says so, that I’m doing something worthwhile with myself (as if publishing in paywalled academic journals should count as ‘worthwhile’ in any morally-infused sense of the word). When I tell fellow ‘real’ job friends (those who work as non-profit employees, computer programmers, or journalists, to name a few) that I’m too busy to grab a beer, they respond with understanding, “been there,” “take it easy,” “don’t work too hard” texts, their sympathy flooding into my phone. And yet, as was painstakingly detailed in the recent New York Times article on the work-til-you-drop culture of white-collar Amazon employees or via a cursory glance at the rates of depression reported by graduate students, ‘real’ jobs do not make a person whole. They don’t make a person better, more secure, or less anxiety-ridden. In addition, if Amazon workers are putting in the number of hours detailed in that article, they’re making about the same hourly wage as I did at the coffee shop.
Rather than continuing to distance ourselves from what we might see as ‘old-style’ working class, low-wage work, a distancing we remarkably continue to enact even when we in fact do work in these ‘fake’ jobs, it’s time we let go of the belief in a distinction between real and fake jobs. We’re long overdue in agreeing that every job we’ll ever have is real in that it will take up most of our day-to-day reality, and if it sucks, we can’t daydream or cynically joke our way out of that present into some unlikely future described by our parents or depicted in old films. Working from home, bed, or a college (or Amazon) campus doesn’t mean we’re any less likely to be pushed to be faster, more innovative, and harder on ourselves than a McDonald’s worker manning the burgers. If we stop dismissing the work that we or the people around us are doing as ‘fake,’ we may begin to conclude that the only way to make any work endurable in the long run is by admitting it impacts our quality of life and then trying to improve the terms of contract. By this point, it should be sufficiently obvious that ‘real’ jobs don’t even stand up to their own vaguely constructed distinctions from those we deem ‘fake,’ so why don’t we collapse the difference by instead making sure that jobs, full stop, provide as many material benefits as we can possibly wrest from our bosses. If we manage this type of progress, we might just be able to again define our jobs as simply “good” in the sense found in the sociological literature on the subject, which so quaintly defines a good job as not just personally or socially fulfilling, but also as necessarily providing a living wage and benefits. How cute and old fashioned.