The anthropologist David Graeber has this idea that culture has been relabelled as consumption. So: what were formerly the traits of the hippies, the principles: free love, free expression, peace not war and so on, have been replaced by the traits of the hipsters: buying iphones, buying jeans, buying into tech start-ups and technological industries.
A consciously celebrated materialism replaces the internally conscious celebration of ideas, so that ideas themselves become an endangered species. Universities move from challenging thought, to reinforcing existing work practices – asking questions like “what do employers want?”, “what do employers need?”, “how do we give students workplace skills?” instead of questions like, “how do we make university students answer the biggest questions of our time?”, “what is the meaning of life?”.
In other words, the underground upswell of principled rebellion becomes morphed into a consumeristic rebellion – a rebellion or call to arms against, yet alongside major brands, to move over and buy other, less major brands, which soon become major brands in their own right. Behavioural attitudes and dress codes at work become the measure by which people target their non-conformity, so now beards and moustaches are more acceptable in corporate environments, but so long as you never complain about company practices on twitter, or ever express anything except the correct political opinion about Anzac day celebrations.
It is okay not to conform, encouraged even, so long as your non-conformity has nothing to do with raising questions about ethics, morality or social justice; as these are ideas that are ‘incompatible’ with the business’ ‘culture,’ standardized anti-social media contracts and the continuation of hard work, not smart work, for no ends, not purposeful ends.
It is ironic that, now in particular, hard work has become cherished more than ever before when the vast majority of the population are working in service industries where hard work involves long hours of paperwork that should have been automated by computers anyways – which were meant to absolve us of paperwork but have otherwise entrenched an environment of internal boredom, futility and stagnation. The principle of the Protestant work ethic has been hijacked by a principle of hard work without ends, as in the futility of rolling a boulder up a mountain, for infinity – as in the myth of Sisyphus. What was once a Greek punishment from the Gods is now everyday life; the futility of refiling the same paperwork, reopening the same programs everyday, re-looking at the same websites. We are always expecting different outcomes, but come to be depressed by the routine and monotony and sameness of the outcomes we receive.
If you are a young person and you do not want to work a forty hour work week, the media will demonize you as part of a “fantasy entitlement/no responsibility/no consequences” generation; a generation sold on too many dreams and not enough realities. Many young people are told to work in retail, hospitality or hard labour in apprenticeships, during their studies, as a form of paying off their dues or taking on real ‘adult’ responsibilities.
This is despite the overwhelming amount of evidence proving that all of these industries are reckless choices with regards to personal health, finance and happiness. These metrics are not required or necessary, so much as the metric of “what contributes to the economy?”
According to the American social researcher Charles Murray, over the last fifty years blue collar workers have become more and more likely to lose their jobs, become unemployed, divorce, get sent to prison and vote less often when compared to white collar workers, and the trend is only expected to get worse. Yet stories in Australia, including the recent collapse of the car manufacturing industry, are not used to warn young people away from primary industry, but to reinforce the bold myth of menial tasks as meaning, hard work as an end, labour as life. Attitudes of ‘toughing it out’ are said to be associated with the construction industry having a male suicide rate that is twice the national average. Still, we tell people to “tough it out” and join these industries to begin with. Still we tell young people to “quit complaining”.
The retail and hospitality industries are not that much better when it comes to personal satisfaction. A recent Retail Workforce Study revealed a crisis of confidence in retail employees due to “negative perceptions of the industry,” with many workers viewing retail as a “short-term job with limited career opportunities”. A 2006 study from Curtin University, reveals the deeply personal, psychological issues associated with these positions – some of which are likely predeterminates for lifelong mental illnesses. Futility and a lack of meaning in our jobs causes illness and death, there, that’s as plain as it can be said.
Typical answers to the survey, from actual retail and hospitality workers, included: “Nobody notices you”; “I often think what’s my purpose here[?]”; ‘You work in a thankless environment”; “I want to get out as soon as possible”; “they don’t think we’re human”.
A question must be asked: why not abolish these jobs entirely?
On the one hand, young people are condemned for being materialistic, vapid, self-serving, social media maverick narcissists. On the other hand, the media cries existential crisis the minute retail figures start falling below national averages at Christmas time.
Either materialism is terrible, in which case end it, or materialism is necessary ‘for the economy’, in which case, vapid self-serving narcissists are going to be your citizenry. Friends, Romans, vapid consumerist narcissists, rejoice.
If you want young people to grow up and not be narcissistic and materialistic; then abolish the retail industry, or at the least, stop sending young people to go work in it.
If that’s too much hard work, then get robots to do it for you.