Some years ago, a picaresque academic named David Graeber wrote an extremely depressing book called “Bullshit Jobs”.
His primary target was a range of “middle management” jobs. But his logic also applies to jobs at the top of our societal pyramid.
In this essay I want to talk briefly about how most affluent and powerful people live in “gilded cages.” Just like bullshit jobs, gilded cages promise meaning and fulfillment, but more often deliver a sense of dissatisfaction and emptiness.
The lives of the affluent and powerful almost always consist of a series of prescribed performances, day after day, night after night, month after month, year after year.
The days are carved into 15 minute chunks and are heavily regulated.
In reality, at the end of a day where you’ve felt like a Master of the Universe, what you’ve really had is 10 meetings where you are supposedly the most important person in the room. Rinse and repeat the next day.
Work and play bleed into one another. Even leisure time is a performance of sorts, chosen from a carefully curated list of permissible activities. The entirety of your lifestyle follows certain rules.
The source of this tidal wave of routine that masquerades as “success” lies in the nature of modernity. The unlimited pursuit of power, wealth and fame is held up as that to which we should all aspire.
The affluent and powerful are birds in a gilded cage or, if you want a more modern metaphor, nicely-groomed hamsters on a very expensive Peloton Tread.
People with a desire for affluence and power, who form a much larger group, want to enter that gilded cage.
Yet, as I have written before, money and power really don’t buy you happiness. The stress and anxiety that I see among the affluent is just as intense as it is in other demographics, if not more.
Many who are on this path believe that there is some milestone at which point somehow things will magically change. After this net worth goal or that size of house or at a certain age, nirvana will manifest itself.
But that is never the case.
That’s largely because every time you hit one personal milestone — wealth, possessions, some career-related advance — you discover that another milestone is now on the roadmap.
This is in the DNA of modern life, in what I call the networked episteme.
The pursuit never ends. The treadmill never stops.
Something feels a bit awry in this analysis. If the jobs and lifestyles we aspire to are hollow simulacrums of “success”, then what the heck is the meaning of it all?
Excellent question. Where I land is that one needs a balanced life, where one finds meaning and purpose away from work.
Certainly it helps to do work that has meaning and purpose, but few jobs and professions offer that — and even when they do, there is going to be a bullshit component (especially in the early years of apprenticeship, but also sadly forever).
I have found that much of the meaning and purpose in my life comes from my volunteer and learning activities.
Some of the roles I have taken on are very visible and confer prestige, although that is not why I do them; others may sound like footnotes but are incredibly, and equally, important to me.
And there are other things that are vital to me that will never show up in a manicured public biography: for instance reading books, playing with my goofy dog, mentoring and coaching young people.
All this is how I find balance. If all else disappeared tomorrow but I had these things, I would be perfectly happy (well, I would still like my dog to be better trained, but that might be an unattainable object).
I should also say that it is very feasible to examine one’s job carefully and nurture that which gives you meaning and purpose beyond the treadmill. I do so in my day job; I would urge you to do so in yours.
I always worry that with these more philosophical essays, I may be sending the highly erroneous impression that I’ve achieved Buddhahood and am this Yoda-like person thinking deep thoughts and dispensing wisdom.
I am very far from that. I have no shortage of treadmill-esque ambition; I get impatient and irritable with all sorts of things and people; I sleep terribly when I am stressed about something at work (which is often!); long lines and inefficiency drive me nuts; I react very poorly when my sense of dignity is affronted; if you examined my life you’d find many instances of horrible behavior; and so on.
But I have come to realizations about how impermanent things are and how much of modern life is, well, bullshit. There is meaning and purpose to be had out there, but it mostly lies outside the usual professional frameworks.
And, as I have written elsewhere, I have slowly remade my “peer group”. That really helps.
I have spent virtually my whole life aspiring to various versions of the gilded cage, and it is only recently that I have realized much of what I have shared above.
So once again: do as I say, not as I have done :).
PS: another great interview with Graeber can be found here; a long form review is here; and a more skeptical analysis is here.