By Ben Feuer

I spent one day of my last vacation on a powerboat, with friends I barely knew, tearing up and down narrow waterways. I am a writer, and like most of my brethren, I spend my time tangled in thorny problems of my own making, which I hope will prove relevant to the experiences of my audience. But on that day in the boat, once I actually managed to loosen up and forget work, I had a great time — the water was cool and the company enjoyable. We left a Golden Retriever back on the shore who was very sad to see me go and very happy to see me return. Even though we had just met, that mutt already liked me better than a lot of my professional friends (rivals?). Later on, back inside the house, I helped my friends’s two-year-old son, Jack, build a puzzle.


It was simple work. It lacked existential meaning. I’ve never had a more fulfilling afternoon.

***

Ryan Avent’s brilliant, insightful and incredibly sad article, “Why Do We Work So Hard?”, really made me think. I commend both his honesty and his insight, but I think he doesn’t go far enough in acknowleding the implications of what he has observed. It is now painfully clear that the 30-something generation’s break with our parents, our relentless pursuit of career self-fulfillment, has been worse than a waste — it has been a disaster.

Let’s start with our sense of accomplishment. Shouldn’t we be proud of our work, of how far we’ve come? Perhaps, but we’re not, because we all know that our elite status we fought so hard for isn’t really ours — it was bought and paid for with privilege, influence and cold hard cash. Lawyers, creative directors, hedge fund managers, app developers and celebrities perch atop arbitrary ‘meritocracies’ based upon equally arbitrary values.  

But at least our work has meaning, Avent argues. At least there’s a reason for us to get up in the morning. Sure, our work means something, but let’s not kid ourselves, if we wanted to make people’s lives better we would have become organic farmers. The value our worlds offer to society is not nearly so great as we like to pretend it is. We overtrained hyperspecialists can spend hours refining a turn of phrase or manipulating an Excel spreadsheet. But does “The World” really operate that much better because we do? Our profits may be mind-boggling, but our social impact is marginal — we are a luxury good, and we’re more buzzworthy to each other than we are worthy of praise.

Which makes it all the more tragic just how many sacrifices we have demanded of ourselves and those around us to make us possible. Because yes, of course, this race doesn’t just hurt us — we, the ‘success stories’, are in fact those least blighted by it. The invisible people in Avent’s narrative, as in most of our lives, are the ones we left behind years ago. The ones who couldn’t ‘keep up’.

***

In this brave new world where all our time is taken up with work and work alone, what happens to our autistic sister-in-law who can’t hold a high-powered job, or possibly any job?  What happens to our poor single mother acquaintance, trying to raise her child?  What about our high school best friend with a couple college DUIs who now can’t afford to buy a house or raise a family? What about our ex-girlfriend who scored eight points too low on the LSAT and now does contract legal work for twenty dollars an hour? What about the people from broken homes, those who were never given a chance to thrive?

How do we justify their total exclusion from our ‘elite’ culture? Do we simply conclude we’re better than these people? Is that why we ignore them? Do we think that we have nothing to learn from them, and that we’re more healthy and secure, intellectually and socially, when they are marginalized?

By making this story about us, aren’t we simply continuing to degrade the very real jobs that need doing all around us?  There are plenty of clever wordsmiths lining up to write blogs — where is the next generation of great teachers, machinists and social workers?

As someone who works with high-powered students destined for all sorts of advanced careers, I have one foot solidly planted in the world of high achievement. As someone whose social life is still influenced by the small New Jersey towns he grew up in, I have always managed to keep one foot outside of it.

From my split perspective, the world Avent and I share is not one we should be proud of. Its values are not driven by the greater good. If anything, it’s shockingly Hobbesian. In our world, the weak conveniently vanish. I have seen friends cut off other friends because they were not perceived to be as professionally successful. I have seen people ‘take off’ and forget where they came from so fast it would make your head spin. Time and time again, I have seen people too busy for their families, their sick relatives, their ailing communities.

Too busy with themselves.

***

It’s clear from his article that Avent knows all this, and yet he offers no solution, and at times wallows in the problem. Anyone with a good heart can sense that we are dismantling everything fundamental, thousands or even millions of years of culture, family, tradition, and replacing it with a vast gray monoculture of identical monkeys scaling narrow ladders of wealth and status. We owe it to ourselves to get off the sidelines and take action, not cheer others’ failure to break free.

So here is my suggestion to those facing the quandary Avent describes —

Step away from the cell phone.

Put it down for a few hours. Let your emails buzz.

Go back to humanity. If your bedroom community is falling, don’t be a drive-by citizen — break a sweat, lift a stone and mend a fence. Do it for an evening a week if that’s all you have time for. Join a local Yahtzee club. Help a poor kid get into college. You might be surprised at the rewards it brings, even if they don’t smell quite as strongly of accomplishment to your ‘friends’.

If we all do it — even if only the best of us do it — our employers, who ‘value’ us so much that we’re afraid that if we leave their sight for a few days we’ll be replaced, will have to reconsider their stance.

We who have been given every opportunity and every advantage cannot afford to forget the loving families and communities that created us. Once we do, there’s nothing left. Once we do, there’s no going back. it’ll be us versus the disaffected, the Sanders-Trump demographic, and all the data-driven promises of BetterTomorrows(TM) won’t save us.

And we’ll wonder why everyone’s so darn angry all the time.