You Don't Get To Define The Value of Your Work

Kevin Drum writes that the lesson of OWS is that hard work no longer is enough to be succesful.  I wrote in the comments

I think you are leaving an important portion out of the value proposition kids are hearing.  Its not just "work hard and get an education and you will do well."  The actual proposition they think they are buying into is "work hard and get an education and work at whatever pleases you and you will do well."

I am reminded of Michelle Obama's plea to graduating college students to not go work in for-profit businesses, but to work for government or NGO's.  The problem is that workers, particularly young workers, don't get to define what is productive labor and what is not.  You can't go out in the world expecting to work really really hard at puppeteering or for the cause of Mayan feminism and necessarily expect to get paid a lot.  In any job, how much you make is determined by how valuable others see that work.

Particularly when you are 22, the work the world needs done and is valuable may very well not be what you want to do.  As you get older and more skilled, you often gain more possibilities of monetizing your true interests.  I was never really able to work at what I wanted until I was about 40.   That does not mean you can't do whatever the hell floats your boat when you are 22.  It just means don't expect the world to pay you whatever you want or need for doing it.


  1. Russ R.:

    That's not just true for labour... it's true universally. The market gets to define the value of whatever it is you're selling.

    Ignore the market at your own peril.

  2. Don:

    But Russ, we know the market is just a bunch of evil capitalists who don't concern themselves with the social value of puppeteering!

    I went to school. I got a diploma. I'm a great puppeteer. Damnit! I deserve $100k/yr!

  3. NL_:

    I was told my entire childhood, in absolutely explicit terms, to pursue whatever career I wanted and whatever made me happiest. I didn't get the companion warning that my choice might come with drawbacks like salary. I think those sermons on self-fulfillment are presented to children but are crafted for the benefit of adults. A lot of adults, especially the boomers (children of the grumpily dutiful GI generation) had the impression that career choice was overly influenced by money and not by happiness. But adults already understand that jobs are primarily for money, not for their own sake. Otherwise, nobody would be a janitor.

    Children aren't coming into the conversation with a bias, like the adults, to primarily choose money. If anything, kids are already assuming they will do whatever seems fun and important. But the adults craft the speech they'd want to hear, forgetting that they are preaching to the choir. Like anybody has to tell kids to pick whatever path is easiest and most enjoyable.

    What the adults were really saying is "care less about money" but the message that came through was "money and career choice are independent of each other." Most people realize this is untrue by college (hopefully) but the subconscious message remains that somehow your life will be fine and fulfilling as long as you picked a career you like. And the nation's unemployed graduates, whose tuitions have been inflated by subsidized interest and copious grants and aid programs, are getting pissed to finally realize that financial accounting and cultural anthro don't have the same market value.

  4. Slocum:

    One of the oddest things to me is that lefties think that choosing work without regard to income potential is somehow admirable, noble, and altruistic, when actually, it's just the opposite. It's selfish and anti-social. What that choice says is, 'I don't care what things other people need and value (and would be willing to pay me for), instead, I'm going to ignore everybody else and do only what interests me and then demand that somebody pay me for it -- simply because I believe I'm working hard').

  5. RandomReal[]:

    Sort of related. I have gotten to know a number of undergraduates in the last few years, through tutoring and hanging out in designated smoking areas while using the library.

    What surprised me on day was a student whom I had not seen for a while (he had graduated) came up to me to thank me for some advice I had given him. Not remembering what is was, I asked. It was "In the real world, it's not how much you know, it's what problem can you solve for someone else."

    Students naturally tend to think that the valuable outcome of education is knowledge, no doubt due to 16+ years of tests. Yet, no boss or customer asks, “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?” Google, Bing, Wolfram Alpha can get you the answer. Instead they ask, "How can I increase the air-speed velocity of my competitive swallow?" The best graduates, regardless of their major, know how to solve problems and will always be successful. Usually, the first problem that they solve is "I gotta get a job."

    But, it never ends. Most stuff I have learned in my field, molecular biology, has changed so much, what I learned in college and grad school is essentially worthless. The only enduring lessons were from calculus, differential equations, boundary value problems (much easier to work with using Mathematica), and thermodynamics. Looking at my bookshelf, those are the only textbooks that I have kept. Learning how to solve problems never ends.

  6. RandomReal[]:

    From Wolfram Alpha “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen [European] swallow?” Answer: 25 mph

  7. Dan:

    When I make the mistake of reading Kevin Drum I find myself asking what kind of a bubble does he live in? He wrote that he increased his annual earnings ten fold in a series of career changes. Good for him! I'm a primary care physician and after 30 years I earn a little over twice my first year salary in inflation adjusted dollars. No wonder he's in over his head. He's got the same unrealistic beliefs as most of the OWS crowd.

  8. Craig Loehle:

    In an interview with my favorite jazz artist, he said one should follow your dream, but the guy is freaking brilliant and creative and prolific. You can't use advice from someone like that unless you are also brilliant etc. I think there is more to it though. If you think of Maslow's hierarchy of values, survival is the basic level of meaning in life. When some degree of security exists, people start to think about other aspects of life that give meaning, such as religion or volunteering, and meaningfull (fulfilling) work fills that need. Where OWS went wrong is assuming that being an engineer is not meaningful and in not paying attention to the jobs and salaries available to philosophy majors or pupeteers. I like philosophy, but have let that be a hobby.

  9. Me:

    Wait a minute. Puppeteering doesn't pay $100k? Damnit now i have to change my major again.

  10. Zeeb:

    yet the other key topic in the quote, SUCCESS, can be defined by the individual. unfortunately, most folks seem content to allow marketeers define it for them.

  11. IGotBupkis, Official Chaneller of the OWS Zeitgist:

    >>> It just means don’t expect the world to pay you whatever you want or need for doing it.





  12. Ted Rado:

    Unfortunately, we now have a jillion college grads with economilcally worthless degrees who have nothing better to do than rail against the system. You reap what you sow.

  13. Bobby L:

    Kind of reminds me of a story I read a while ago (maybe here?) about a bakery that had to shut it's doors because they weren't making money. They left a note on the door blaming the community, basically saying (and I'm paraphrasing) that they had to close because people were to dumb to realise how awesome their baked goods were and didn't give them a chance, and the customers they did have should have felt privileged to pay for over-priced goods because they were that awesome.

    It just seems like poor customer service and unbridled narcissism; you have to present a good product (even yourself) to convince people to hand over their hard earned cash to you. But I see fewer and fewer people able to externalise, and it's more and more "well, that's what I deserve."

    I shudder to see what will happen in the U.S. when the echo-boom and millennial generations grow up and start running the country....

  14. DMS:

    The guy replying to Coyote's comment seems to have (presumably wilfully) either not got, wilfully refuses to acknowledge, the point. It's hard when someone tries to pop your groupthink bubble; easier to pop the fingers in the ears.

  15. DMS:

    clarification - guy in the mother jones link

  16. Jamessir Bensonmum:

    Too much individualism or too much entitlement? Why should people get to do what they want to do? To me that is not work. Instead you look at the labor market and see what jobs pay and adjust your expectations accordingly. Make yourself useful to someone who needs your skills if you have any.

    The critique about the Occupiers and about young people in general is missing something: that many people feel they're owed a job and that business should create jobs and go out in the community and recruit workers. Mallarkey. It is each individual's duty to find his own place in the world.

    And Michelle Obama is out of her mind. Government should be the employer of last resort.