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I wanted to link here to a wonderful post I just found on Livejournal, though it appears to be a couple months old. The author, an artist, has written eloquently on something I’ve been finding vitally important but had not yet managed express. Namely, there is a concept missing in our vocabulary about work: we have a serious blind spot for what is between “career” and “hobby.” A career is what you do for money; anything you don’t do for money, gets relegated to the status of an indulgent pastime, a mildly pleasant but unserious way to while away the hours until your real work begins anew.

There’s a hidden, and I think pernicious, assumption underlying such a dualism: that anything not done for money is just not that serious. Feminists have rightly criticized the effects of such an assumption when it comes to childrearing and homemaking; but I think we’ve yet to seriously think about its effects for other kinds of unpaid work.

I do not plan on this blog ever making me any money. Nor do I plan on it advancing my academic career. If either of those happens, great. But those are not the point; I feel an inner drive to do a kind of writing that I can’t make money off of, and that’s more important to me than the kind of writing that does pay. This is something central to my life, and it makes no sense to relegate that to the category of “hobby.”

The original post’s author (who goes by the alias haikujaguar) suggests that we should refer to our meaningful unpaid work with the honourable names of “vocation” and “calling.” I’m less certain about this, because for so long these terms have had the connotation of paid work. The term “calling” comes from the German Beruf, which now simply means paid work. (Was sind sie von Beruf? is German for “What’s your job?”) The sociologist Max Weber saw the Protestant idea of a calling as part of the “spirit of capitalism”: you were called to do that which you would get paid for. For our new term, for the moment at least, we will probably need to specify our fulfilling work as an “unpaid calling” or “unpaid vocation.”

I’m going to guess that haikujaguar is under 40, because I think there’s a generational issue here. My grandparents’ generation, having grown up in a depression and fought a war, didn’t have time to think about personal fulfillment – what mattered to them was avoiding starvation. My mother’s generation – the baby boomers – came of age with those material needs satisfied, so fulfillment was what counted, and they went in search of fulfilling careers, and typically found them. Women in particular (chronicled in the likes of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique) realized that childrearing was not fulfilling for them, so they needed to find their meaning in fulfilling careers like academia or being a freelance writer or artist or musician.

But at least three things have changed for my generation (late Generation X / early Generation Y). First, the room for those fulfilling careers has dried up. Becoming an academic is exponentially harder today than it was 25 years ago (let alone 40); it’s much tougher to get noticed as a writer or musician in the era of media consolidation. Part of this is because our parents gave us the advice they learned – that we need to find fulfillment in our paid work. That’s relatively easy when you’re not competing with a whole generation of people whose parents all told them exactly the same thing. There isn’t the room for us to do what our parents did.

So we have this first limiting factor pushing against our having a fulfilling career. But second, we have a huge advantage our parents didn’t have: the Internet. When my mother was the age I am now, I remember her struggling valiantly to get a book published about her time in India, so that she could make a living as an author. But if she’d been trying to do that thirty years later, she wouldn’t have needed to get published for money; she could have written it on a blog, and got her voice heard this way. Weber said “The Puritan wanted to work in calling (Beruf); we are forced to do so.” But maybe now the conditions are arising for us to separate paid work from calling in an unprecedented way.

Which brings me to the third and final point: a great many of us are not having children. That leaves us the time to work on our true calling outside of the work we do for pay. There are only so many hours in a day. Unless one has truly extraordinary levels of motivation and self-discipline, the options would seem to be: paid work, childrearing, fulfilling unpaid vocation – pick any two. (Unless, of course, childrearing is your fulfilling unpaid vocation.)