Why having a career is now so very important

YEARS ago, most Americans looked at work as a way of making money. They wanted a "job." But now, a great number of Americans want more. They view work as a source of self-esteem or a way to approach some moral ideal of achievement. They do not want a job. They want a "career."

This new goal represents more than just human ambition in play. The desire to excel in something or ensure the memory of one's name is age-old. Careerism is something altogether different. It attests to the new value Americans attach to different forms of labor.


Traveling through America during the 19th century, many Europeans were surprised by the county's democratic attitude toward work. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, noted that Americans considered all honest jobs to be equally honorable. There were no fine distinctions made between occupations, and since everybody worked to make money, all professions had an air of resemblance. The difference between the owner of a business and one of his servants simply turned on the minor issue of salary. The servant could be poor, but he was not degraded because he worked, or exposed to ridicule because his task was a menial one.

This surprised the Europeans because in their world, fine distinctions between jobs were made all the time. Aristocrats, for example, despised labor performed with a view toward profit. They poked fun at the money-getting ways of the merchant class. They worked for something more -- for honor -- and jobs that served this illustrious purpose were raised far above those which met the low need of making a living. Hence, aristocrats wanted to be soldiers or political leaders, not businessmen. In their minds, such tasks were more honorable.


Virtuous work

The new emphasis on having a career is a throwback to this earlier era. Work now has intangible benefits that rival the profit motive in importance. Work proves one's worthiness; it ennobles the self and gives a frank estimate of one's value as a person. An idea of virtue has become attached to certain kinds of work, and this is why a spectrum of work ranging from the honorable to the dishonorable has come into being. Labor for profit brings all work down to the level of the earth. Labor for honor makes some jobs seem almost semi-divine.

This pattern of thinking emerged in the 1950s. Suddenly, certain occupations were raised in status -- the personnel director, the -- administrator, the public relations expert -- while others descended in rank. The ranking had nothing to do with salary. Sociologists at the time noted that a low-paying, white-collar position (for example, a salesclerk) was considered higher in status than a well-paying blue-collar position (for example, a factory laborer). The prejudice continues through to the present -- a recent New York Times article noted that electricians make more than social workers, but in many circles, social workers still enjoy higher status.

In our time, certain careers are accorded so much honor that they are called "callings." These include, for example, the caring professions -- medicine, therapy or counseling -- as well as some positions in the arts. I can recall graduates of elite universities destined for these occupations express a degree of contempt for those about to enter the world of business and manufacturing. The caring professions were understood to represent higher or more noble activities because they were uncontaminated by the urge to make money. Like the aristocrats of old, these graduates worked for honor, and the importance of "the mission" crowded out interest in making a profit.

This prejudice is particularly well-captured in a scene from the movie "Reality Bites." One woman mentions to her writer friend that she has just landed a good job at The Gap. Her friend's praise is filled with condescension, which suggests to the woman that for someone with a "career" in writing, a mere "job" would be demeaning.

Why is it that positions like managers and administrators have greater status than manual labor, while the caring professions reign supreme? The answer can be found in the special universe of values that define our world.

In aristocratic society, a person was elevated by tasks that allowed one to display courage in battle or poise in public, that allowed a person to be wrapped in dignity and splendor. Virtue was joined to a love of power, and so those positions where a person could command others, dominate others or stand out among others were high status. Such positions, for example, included the warrior or high government official.

Our society embraces a different set of values. It emphasizes caring and self-esteem, and improving interpersonal relations. Hence, those jobs that involve "dealing with people" or aiding interpersonal communication or helping people to adjust are considered high status. Those include the counselor, the manager and the service-provider. Caring professions like medicine or therapy almost embody the new value system and so are boosted higher.


This helps to explain why more and more jobs involving manual labor are being given fancy appellations. My car recently broke down and I called the automobile club for help, but instead of getting a tow operator, I got a "roadside counselor." On the train, the janitor is now called the "refuse collection manager."

The purpose of these new job titles is not just to raise the status of positions that were once considered quite respectable, but to do so in a way that is consistent with the new value system.

The counselor, the manager -- these words emphasize that part of the task requiring a laborer to deal with other people. A tow operator, for example, must talk to his or her client. Through this emphasis, the status of these jobs is raised.

A new era

It was not always this way in America. There was a time when every job undertaken with the high aim of being productive (not just a career) was considered to have an element of nobility, no matter how humble or unrecognized the work may have been.

Value was attached to a person not through his or her work but, rather, through an estimation of his or her character. Sadly, something has been irretrievably lost in the new way of thinking -- the charm and democratic simplicity of a society that did not place too much weight on a person's occupation.


Ronald Dworkin, author of "The Rise of the Imperial Self," writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 5/18/98