American worker culture toxically couples the fetishization of expertise with an undermining—or even delegitimization—of youth and so-called “unskilled” labor.
This paradigm manifests most evidently in the delineation between “skilled” and “unskilled,” or “professional” and “student,” to more broad divisions of unreal and real. Students, for instance, often hear that in the “real” world, things unfold differently than on a college campus. Such claims, of course, rest on the assertion that college campuses exist separate from the real world.
In making this argument, people reference a separation more fundamentally rooted in the distinction between experienced and inexperienced, rather than the difference between students and workers more specifically.
Those who choose to divide experiences between the college and the non-college world, however, correctly point to a different set of dynamics and power hierarchies that make it more palatable to call the world beyond campuses the “real” one. The real-unreal binary takes a more insidious tone when differentiating between “real” and other jobs.
As students transition between graduation and employment, they encounter the phrase “real job” thrown around in discussions of acceptable post-college plans. Upon leaving college, it seems necessary to enter either a graduate program or a “real job”—otherwise, a recent graduate will likely face constant questions about their next step or about how their chosen degree wasn’t justified.
Of course, what one defines as a “real job” varies with mileage. Standard assumptions, however, involve a few core criteria, particularly the requirement of a college degree and alignment with long-term career goals. “Real jobs” almost definitely exclude customer service positions, as well as blue collar and part-time work.
The notion that only some jobs qualify as “real” furthers classist stigmas against non-specialized work and diminishes the importance of employees in these necessary positions. Fetishizing “real jobs” as ideal, moreover, pushes a toxic-work obsessed culture wherein employment status and job titles take precedence in how people judge their own self-worth.
Earning a real paycheck should distinguish itself as the only determinant of a “real job.” Jobs fulfill their intended function when they allow an individual to obtain life’s necessities—not when they morph into arbitrary status markers.
Working in customer service to feed your children and pay the bills carries as much validity and dignity as working in an office with a three-piece-suit dress code. The jobs excluded from “real” consideration represent critical work that consumers demand and require: food service, retail and construction, for instance.
As another semester ends and a fresh batch of graduates enter the workforce, resist the conditioning to congratulate them on securing a “real job”—or, worse, to harangue them for failing to do so.
A satisfied and respectful culture demands the ability to divorce expertise and education from a person’s inherent value. To achieve this end, society must decouple jobs from indications of status and worth.