popcorn

In the months before my college graduation, my dad would joke that he was excited to see his son finish one of the most expensive pre-barista programs in the country. His shtick irked me at first, but I quickly learned to find comfort playing up the tragicomedy of entering the job market with a liberal arts degree. Soon I was telling the joke to family members as a convenient way of diffusing uncomfortable conversations about my future, and by the time I had moved back home I was telling it regularly to myself.

I suppose it was a way of managing my own expectations in response to the shifting reality faced by would-be members of the contemporary professional class, a far-ranging and volatile category spanning various selections of the overlapping professional sectors. White collar, public sector, creative labor — these are all qualifiers for an increasingly fragmented geography of work that relies on the seductiveness of professionalism. Its lure is a seemingly pragmatic utopianism; professionalism turns on the promise of an open and freely accessible workforce, and is bolstered by the ideal of a classed society that can encourage individual choice and autonomy without sacrificing social consciousness or class mobility. This dream becomes satire in the absence of a liberalized education system — one that is both well funded and autonomous from corporate interests; hence my father’s sardonic jokes, and my own neurotic attachment to the post-grad hustle.

I’ve cycled through a slew of food service and retail jobs. My longest stay was just four months at a small artisanal popcorn store, after an even shorter stint at the Columbia University Barnes & Noble, where I unpacked Homer and Locke for the parents of incoming freshman. The owner of the popcorn shop, a Gen X professional, had been selling gourmet popcorn on the Lower East Side for over a year. Her brand was eco-friendly high-end snack food with a not-so-subtle wink to Karmic philosophy, a concept that could be easily refashioned into an aesthetic and sold as either spiritual nourishment or ethical commitment. Sustainably made, environmentally conscious, and only slightly steeper than movie theater corn, good for your stomach and your soul: this was the mission at the company we’ll call DharmaKorn. And while it was easy to for me to gawk disapprovingly at the kind of consumerism that catered to bewildered tourists and the upper-crust millennial, I can’t deny that I had left my rank-and-file job at B&N for more than the 50 cent pay raise. Working at DharmaKorn promised an alternative to the vastness and monotony of corporate retail.

Somehow I found myself relating to this young entrepreneur, who felt so strongly about work that I found meaningless. Like me, she was concerned about the concentration of capital. While shoveling scoops of “Zen Cheddar” into brown paper bags, I complained about the financialization of academia — its way of over-leveraging education while detaching it from any useful and self-sustaining future — and she would decry Orville Redenbacher and the other scions of “big popcorn.”

The trappings of solidarity were there, and so I felt them occasionally. Our workspace was small and intimate, and the owner often worked with me to supplement her tiny and irregular staff. Because there were no glaringly obvious signs of hierarchy, customers would often ask if I was the owner. This is the allure as well as the trap of the local or niche business for those on either side of the counter. A work that caters to the idea of personal individuality or local autonomy appears less exploitative, and seems to offer a more humanistic relationship between capital and labor.

Regardless of our different aims and worldviews, it was easy to empathize with and at times pity the precarious position of my employer. I stayed late when she asked, came in when she needed help. Naturally, it seemed easier to lower my expectations than to demand reliability and consistency; after all, I didn’t plan to stay for long. For post-grads in dead-end jobs, it is tempting to settle for or even romanticize a crisis-prone and grinding independent work environment. Doing so avoids the stark reality of capitalism’s contradictions and, in the case of would-be professionals, the reality that your temp job is your actual living, not just a step to something better or a way to pay the bills while you figure things out.

The dictum to “do what you love,” as Miya Tokumitsu so aptly described it for Jacobin, continues to drive the professional’s search for work whose value exceeds economic necessity, often in the name of aesthetics or politics. There is also a desire to avoid the alienating scale, disenchanting monotony, and villainous corporatism usually associated with rank-and-file jobs — with working class jobs. This desire to avoid “bad work” might on occasion be stronger than the desire to attain fulfilling work — or, at least, they work in tandem.

Confused college grads, therefore, may be living by a different but related dictum: “do whatever,” an awkward purgatory between doing what you love and surviving. Like its more positive counterpart, this avoidance of “bad work” is concerned with ideals of personal autonomy and individuality. For freelance workers, serial interns, and frantically scheduled busboys and baristas, a state of precarity may seem like a best option, or even a selling point and a source of pride, when the options available for steady work appear increasingly daunting. Employers play on this desire, promising an ad-hoc schedule and a playful work environment.

At DharmaKorn, my time and energy were devoted to cold exchange, but my own ego factored into that exchange in ways that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. The consumer would buy his marked-up popcorn and justify it by the aesthetic experience of having something unique and niche, or by the ethic of supporting small business, or perhaps even spiritual fulfillment. The owner, in turn, would pass on her own sacrifice of time and money as added value for the customer, and she would shift the same burden onto me in exchange for added perks of working for a small non-corporate business. Grateful to not be working at Starbucks, though I couldn’t exactly explain why, I would give her the added value of my pliancy. The effects of this were most felt when we were left with an oversupply of popcorn. Business was unreliable and impromptu, and yet we were consistently more productive than was necessary, given the demand for our miso-seaweed blend. Much of the extra popcorn got repackaged and sold as dog treats at half price. Someone floated the idea of using the surplus popcorn as packaging instead of styrofoam peanuts.

The unpaid internship, in a different way, plays on the desires for professional and creative labor as well as a more democratic, or at least less alienating, workplace. Unpaid internships muddle expectations in an environment where the privileges of a liberal arts education are relatively tenuous and increasingly hollow, though they of course continue to be significant. While professional labor tends to operate on the assumption that institutions and industries provide work and thus a living in exchange for your time and expertise, unpaid internships extract your labor and your time in exchange for the opportunity to do what you love, or to at least do what thousands of dollars of education ostensibly trained you to do. For many, this implies that living meaningfully is only possible if you do not need to make a living.

For years, consumers have been drawn to the local and artisanal under the assumption that their money can buy good food as well as community. Now, more and more workers are leaning toward jobs that advertise that they will mean more than a wage. But the fact that a more aesthetically pleasing or ethically fulfilling work environment cannot be quantified by any sort of material benefit makes such promises as exploitative as they are seductive. While these jobs promise a work environment void of the monotony and corporatism usually associated with working-class jobs, they often simply deliver precarious work and a more personalized form of exploitation.

* * *

While every work experience is different, I share my own as a concrete example of how the “Death of a Yuppie Dream” is playing out for young graduates of liberal arts colleges. That phrase is the title of a 2013 report by Barbara and John Ehrenreich that charts the decline of the promises of the professional working class — a class that, through the rational organization of public institutions and assets, was supposedly able to cater to both broad social needs and the specific creative desires of its members. Named the “professional-managerial class” in a previous report written by Barbara Ehrenreich in 1977, this sector has struggled to reproduce itself in the last decade due to economic trends and policies similar to those that ravaged the working class in the 1980s. The cheapening of technical and creative labor through the corporatization of ostensibly liberal institutions, like universities and nonprofits, coupled with the right-wing ideological and political assault against liberal elitism, has helped to squeeze many college graduates out of the sector of the labor market they expected to work in.

College tuitions have risen 498 percent since 1986, while consumer prices have as a whole have only risen 115 percent, leaving today’s average college graduate $25,000 in debt. Increasingly, the most immediate perk of a BA is first pick among a series of unpaid internships or boutique service jobs. It is difficult to parse out the political implications of professionalism in the context of these difficulties. Teachers, lawyers, social workers, and academics have historically constituted a progressive force for social change. On the other hand, they have historically alienated the working class and have settled for their own interests, despite their frequent claims to political responsibility, both personal and institutional. We continue to see this today; the nonprofit hustler, social media intern, and part-time barista may all desire a more just or pleasing world, but many are driven by a fear of, if not an outright distaste for, those subjected to worse labor and social conditions. These days, the disproportionately white group of college educated millennials is better known for raising housing prices in traditionally working-class neighborhoods than for servicing the welfare state.

In much Marxist theory, the “petit-bourgeois” stood as a check against the corporate dispossession of public institutions; the class was a “middle man” positioned between the interests of capital and labor. This made them the perfect candidates to, as Ehrenreich explains, “design the division of labor and the machines that controlled workers’ minute by minute existence on the factory floor, manipulate their desire for commodities and their opinions, socialize their children, and even mediate their relationship with their own bodies.” Out of this grew a class culture that valued autonomy, personal lifestyle, and the authority of expertise, often at the cost of obfuscating structural realities that stifled the individual pursuits of those outside that class.

These ideals persist even as a material basis for them seems to crumble. Sociologists and critics have argued over how to best to map professionalism in relation to shifting class for as long as something like a professional class has existed. And yet, the ideal of professionalism remains, even as the material force of capital and labor’s intermediary waxes and wanes. Autonomy, lifestyle, and expertise remain powerful symbols of class privilege, although they decreasingly mean what they are ostensibly good for — class mobility. And while many continue to take both meaningful work and class mobility for granted, it is also evident that the idea of a stable profession no longer seems compatible with the aesthetic or ethical considerations raised in liberal arts educations. But why would it, when the utopian promise of work no longer appears evident in a state project? The idea of “corporate,” a large group with a shared mandate that rises above the interests of the individual for the good of all, begins to seem fundamentally insincere, as we associate it only with the hollowing out of public goods and services, the division of people between corporate sharks and their working class prey. Consequently, these would-be professionals find themselves desiring the small and the unstable, a kind of professionalism more akin to the middle class of the 19th century than to the kind eulogized by the Ehrenreichs.

As members of the professional-managerial class find themselves at risk of being declassed, is it possible that they could begin to detach the seemingly progressive values of professionalism from their remaining class privilege? Some might look to current campaigns, offshoots of Occupy Wall Street and Strike Debt, for example, and see the increased interest in socialist and vanguard politics among millennial, as the birth pangs of a new more radical professional class. If capitalism itself is always in motion, then it would seem to make sense to embrace some displacement as grounds for innovative forms of solidarity. But doing so would require reclaiming the concept of corporate as an idea — one that, while it is perverted by capitalism, is not the fundamental mode of capitalism itself.

To me, this is distinct from the misguided hope that radical politics lies beneath the romance of the local. As Left Business Observer editor Doug Henwood observes, this romance rehashes a well-rehearsed story, particular neither to this moment nor to any left-wing consideration of work:

Everybody loves small business. Well, maybe Fortune 500 CEOs and the investment bankers who serve them don’t, but practically everyone else does. Across the political spectrum, it’s celebrated for its authenticity, pluck, and copious powers of job creation. On the right, the needs of small business are used to counter proposed regulations or minimum wage increases, as if the virtues of small business were self-evident. On parts of the left, small business is positioned as local and human-scaled, in contrast with globe-striding behemoths.

There is, of course, a real difference between the appreciation of the local in more nuanced and radical conceptions of democratic work and the mythologization of small businesses offered by fiscal conservatives. But given that it is increasingly easy to confuse the two, I’d like to lay out some of the expectations I’ve accrued in the last year — with the hope that they will make sense of the realities faced by those working or interning at small businesses or nonprofits, confirm that these struggles are not new, desirable, nor inevitable.

  1. Lacking Standards: Small retail and foodservice workplaces are often particularly bad about offering a schedule in advance. It is not uncommon for owners to wait until the night before to notify their workers (especially their part-time workers) of their upcoming schedule. Some may feel that such inconveniences are the price of open and flexible communication with your boss, and for part-time workers who have another job or internship, flexibility can be a perk. Ultimately, though, we serve the whims of our bosses and not the other way around. As workers, we do not have the same luxury of our time, and so it is especially important to make sure that all “perks” translate into direct material benefits agreed upon in advance. A “flexible” schedule often translates to being on call 24/7, and can in some cases allow bosses to skirt the issue of overtime. With unpaid internships, you should be allowed to make your own schedule, as you are giving it away for free.
  2. Quitting: When friends of mine tell me about quitting their jobs at small start-ups or local businesses, they often sound as though they are breaking up with a partner. Your boss is out of line if they “feel betrayed” when you quit. The assumption that you should be as emotionally involved in the business as they are is ridiculous, and is all the more pervasive in workplaces where the boss works alongside employees, or at businesses that advertise themselves as politically conscious or progressive. One of the more empowering things a boss ever said to me happened when I told my manager at Barnes & Noble that I was quitting (to work at DharmaKorn): “Of course,” he said, “this is not a great job.”
  3. The “Virtues” of a Small Workforce: For many the idea of a mass workforce organized through an extensive bureaucratic network is socially, aesthetically, and politically unappealing. At DharmaKorn my relationships with my coworkers felt more tenuous, competitive, and fractured than at the corporate book chain I left behind. There is a popular notion that systems and standards, like the kind you read in employee manuals, are an unnecessary imposition, and some people have no doubt felt that the absence of a thick managerial stratum makes it easier to respond to the specific needs of their coworkers and vice versa. But hierarchies exist in all workforces, regardless of whether or not they are regulated; small workforces are often more autarkic than they are democratic. At many a local cafe or specialty store, where predominantly white, “articulate” college grads with tasteful piercings staff the front counter, an overworked, undocumented person of color is working out of customer sight.

I am not suggesting that young professionals quit their cafe jobs and their freelance gigs to go work for more centralized workforces. But we should look to the efforts of organizations working to make precarious positions into real jobs rather than dignify them for being irregular. Take W.A.G.E (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), a New York-based activist group fighting to regulate compensation for freelance artists. Or consider the Retail Action Project, a contemporary wing of the RWDSU, which seems particularly receptive to organizing smaller boutique stores and part-time workers. Organizing among interns is also on the rise and commanding more public attention than ever before.

The professional class is increasingly dispossessed but still secure compared to those farther down the class ladder. This brings the possibilities of both new kinds of solidarity and a retrenched assertion of class position. The political implications of where you choose to work, if you’ve been given a choice, are minuscule. What matters more is how you make your work a living. Regardless, both remain (for better or worse) attached to the creative and individualistic values of professionalism. We should, at the very least, raise our expectations and demand more as workers, regardless of how or where we work.


 

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