A reader sent me a link to this essay,“The Dream Job Is Dead. Did It Ever Really Exist?,” and I thought it was worth getting a post of its own. The pandemic and resulting effect it has had on our economy and livelihoods has brought into sharp focus an idea that, especially for a lot of feminists who have fought for every career choice and opportunity and advancement they’ve been granted, might seem counterintuitive or in conflict with modern attitudes and behavior: our jobs are not our lives. Indeed, for many people, work is just… a way to fund their actual lives, and the idea of “dream jobs” is ridiculous because they don’t dream of labor. And yet, for those of us – again, especially women of a certain demographic – who grew up with a narrative that a dream job was something not only to aspire to but also a main way of measuring one’s success in life, not wanting a dream job, wanting a dream job but not having one or, even worse, not having any idea what your dream job might be has often brought with it a sense of, if not failure, a looming feeling of being different (and not “good different.”).
“The idea of a dream job as an item to procure, a destination at which to arrive, something you are rather than something you do, and a status symbol is definitely a reflection of the deeply ingrained late-capitalistic, productivity-obsessed, puritanical, American exceptionalism norms,” agrees Megan Hellerer, a career coach for “under-fulfilled overachievers,” who has worked with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She adds: “The ‘dream job’ concept is always looming in every coaching conversation I have in one of two ways, both despair-inducing. It can show up as the disillusionment of a failed ‘dream job,’ or the paralysis of feeling like one can’t start her life or her career because she doesn’t know with certainty what that dream job is.”
I was thinking of this essay as I answered the letter from Monday’s column, in which I found a pretty strong implicit suggestion that not pursuing a “dream job” – or, at least, the highest paying job one might be qualified for, which in itself might be how many define “dream job” – is to fail or to show a striking lack of ambition. But… it’s not. And maybe, just maybe, one silver lining in the awfulness that is our current situation, the uber capitalism that defined many of our childhoods – and I’m thinking of those of us born in the early 70s to early 90s, especially – is beginning to make way for something else – something that doesn’t define success by the kind of jobs we have or the amount of money we make.
“Many disillusioned workers are coming to the conclusion that they want a life where they work to live, rather than live to work. But it can be hard to admit when the job you thought would be a dream is really more of a waking nightmare, especially if you’ve already put years of hard work and expensive schooling into achieving it. Coronavirus and the resulting economic crisis, however, have sped up this process for many people, especially in industries where the pandemic has wrought significant job cuts. Even for those who still have jobs, the events of this year have forced us to re-evaluate what’s really important in life.”
Not only has the pandemic and resulting economic crisis sped up the process of re-evaluating one’s goals in life, but also younger people today have a far better grasp of all the ways they’re being screwed over by capitalism and they have more vocabulary to name those ways than those of us who were young twenty years ago and are maybe only just now able to articulate what they always felt in their gut (hi, it’s me!):
“It’s just not accurate or safe to define ourselves by where we work or what we do anymore, because chances are, we’re underpaid, overworked, and living in fear of being laid off. We also have the vocabulary, knowledge, and platforms now to articulate the ways in which corporate America is a deeply sexist, racist, classist institution with a lot of dated rules and mores that don’t make much sense in the context of the modern world. Even if you’re doing something you ostensibly love, it’s hard to feel like your job is a dream when you’re battling microaggressions, working multiple gigs just to pay the bills, or feeling chained to a desk all day in business casual attire when you could theoretically be doing your job from anywhere.”
And, of course, like so many other things, the disillusionment with the idea of a dream job is the result of gendered factors, many of which have also come into sharper focus through this pandemic we’re living through. Women – working mothers, especially – are being tasked with seemingly impossible demands, prompting them to make seemingly impossible choices about work, money, and family. If a “dream job” is coming close to meeting the extraordinary needs of our current moment, maybe it’s not such a dream, after all. Maybe the dreamier job is the one that allows for the best work-life balance.
I have so much more to say about all of this but, ironically, I have to wait because it’s 8:45 a.m. and in 15 minutes I have to supervise remote learning orientation on two different iPads in two different rooms of our home for my 4th-grader and my kindergartener as we begin what will likely be one of the more memorable, and likely more challenging, school years of our lives. It turns out my dream job is what I’ve been doing all along – it is this so that I can better be able to do that. I hoped ten years ago when I started this site that it would be a way for me to financially contribute to my household while engaging my brain and helping to create a community and also allowing lots of flexible time to raise kids. I had no idea how much I would need all of those things today.