Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Found a Job

I've started working for peanuts operating a cash register at a large sporting goods store which will never be mentioned by name here - I don't think that it is always appropriate to blog about work, especially when work is a soul-sucking enterprise. We'll have to see how that demand on my time impacts my writing here. In the meantime, before I have to go pay my dues to the Man again, here is a thought about the "new" economy:

Most new jobs created in the current economic climate are low wage jobs. In most of these jobs, employees are treated as fiscal liabilities; that is, as overhead and potential overhead, in need of reduction. They are treated with suspicion by management, seen as thieves or potential thieves, always looking to steal time, money and/or merchandise. They are treated with derision by those they serve, who thank God that they are not like these poor souls who have to slave away in a dead-end, low-pay job.

My first day on the job, many a person treated me like a complete idiot. Not only am I stuck here - an indication of my abilities and my worth - but I'm not any good at it! Surely any idiot, save for this poor, inept soul, can operate a cash register! I spent most of the day wanting to shout out my intellectual credentials, to somehow prove myself to those who see me as little more than a pathetic slave. It was a dehumanizing experience.

Worse still is the myth - nay, lie - that a college degree is a ticket out of low wage work. It shocked me that I couldn't get a better job than this when I decided to re-enter the work force after leaving professional ministry. But it shocked me even more to find that I am not nearly the only person at my work with a college degree. Each of us were a little stunned to find, in this "recovery," that we can't do better than peanuts per hour to work a demeaning and dehumanizing job.

Not, of course, that retail has to be that way. Just that retail, in this environment, is that way. At least mass retail, which follows Wal-Mart's corporate example with varying degrees of success. With, of course, success being determined by the difference between gross revenue and overhead. With, of course, me being seen as overhead, rather than an asset.

In a truly existentially disorienting moment, I ran into one of my co-workers on break, only to realize that he used to be in my Youth Group. He had always seen me as a quasi-mystical creature, someone so intuned with the will and nature of God that I operated on almost another plane. A different category of being. Now I'm just another person in the company uniform, designed to remove as much individuality, creativity, and free will as possible. Talk about being taken down a couple of notches in someone's eyes.

Of course, I always said that I hated how ministry in general and youth ministry in particular too often devolved into a cult of personality. But being at the head of such an accidental cult - even when it comes with "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" - strokes the ego. And my ego had long been in need of stroking. There is a great deal less ego stroking in retail work, where no one notices you unless you make a mistake. Where the whole goal is to minimize the extent to which you can be seen as a liability.

I should start back to school in January, working slowly toward a career in academia, which I'm sure will come with its own challenges and disappointments. In the meantime, I've been dreaming about getting one of my papers tattooed to my forehead, just so that the people who stare at my suddenly blank face will know that I am more than just my function in the store.


Brian Cubbage said...

Congratulations on the new job, even though it's obvious from your post that you don't think it's anything worth being congratulated for. I think that you should take to heart the fact that you aren't the only college-educated person at your workplace serving in an entry-level job; keep reminding yourself that your worth as a person and your worth as a professional, career-minded person have nothing to do with the job you're currently working.

I'm not a paragon of professional success, as you know, but I am working in the profession I want to work in. In graduate school, though, I spent a couple of summers working at the Wal-Mart in my home town. As Wal-Marts go, it was actually a pretty good one, but it was a little bit of a comedown to spend the year taking advanced courses and discussing ideas full-time, only to come back in the summer and work a cash register.

If you're looking for advice (and feel free to disregard if you're not), prove to yourself that you're more than qualified enough for the job by throwing yourself into it and doing it in a truly outstanding way. I worked hard at Wal-Mart (for peanuts, of course), but at the end of the day I took satisfaction from knowing that I did a good job. It also made me appreciate just how hard people in entry-level jobs work.

So again, congratulations! Even if it's temporary and not all that fulfilling, you are working again.y

Princess Pinky said...

I am glad you found something. Just remember, you don't have to stop looking. Because companies do not place an emphasis on retaining good employees, but instead recruiting new ones you can increase the peanuts you work for. It is all soul sucking and there is not much to be done about it.

That said, I think everyone should have retail experience. If a person has had someone look at them like they are the dumbest thing to ever string two words together, they (hopefully) would be less likely to do it. If a person had to keep a line of holiday shoppers from killing them when nothing is ringing the correct price and the computer decides at the exact moment that everyone in line has had enough of waiting, to start declining all credit cards, they (hopefully) will show more patience when they themselves are doing their holiday shopping.

With retail, you have the opportunity to observe people at their very worst and sometimes at their best. It give you insight into they way people relate to each other. Around the holiday time it also shows us how distorted our desires to do good can become as the powers of commercialism invade all parts of our lives (and minds).

Tyler Simons said...

With retail, you have the opportunity to observe people at their very worst and sometimes at their best.

I think that Her Royal Highness hits the nail on the head here, Strappy. I was a bit bugged by the one-sidedness of your post, even if I understand your lack of enthusiasm at your new job.

Of course, even on the Wal-Mart model, those employees who show themselves to be more of an asset than a liability (and, of course, some employees prove themselves to be liabilities) have opportunities for advancement. This was the problem with that Nickel and Dimed book -- the author never tried to get a promotion! That would have changed the whole dynamic.

Cash registers take a shift or two to reveal their mysteries. Worry not. The mysteries are revealed in time, I assure you.

It makes a bit of sense to me that your options were severely limited by the fact that you're back in school come January. An important consideration for your fourth paragraph! I might call a college degree a ticket to a big league game, but you gotta get yourself to the stadium on your own power. Sometimes they build the ballparks in out of the way, hard to find places. You could always just go to see the double-a team down the street, of course.

Tyler Simons said...

I do totally appreciate the Talking Heads title, though!

Troy said...


have I been where you are at. I had a master's degree, graduated first in my graduate class, phi kappa phi medal around my neck, all that b.s.

And over the next two years I: did basic construction crap labor for five bucks an hour; worked as an electrician's helper at dawn in 100 degree bakeries; did lots of data entry; also, customer service, warehouse work, loaded and unloaded trucks, filed papers, just about every crap manual and office job I can think of.

Yeah, I've been there.

And as you know, you won't stay there. Also, these kind of jobs do get easier.

There's something else I want to respond to but it's coming in your email.

Jeff said...


Great post. Don't feel too bad. My brother is an accomplished attorney. After he got married he had to move from Florida up to Maine, and left his job in doing so.

Just to fill some time while he looked for something else, he took a job filling catalog orders at L.L. Bean. He said it was one of the most difficult and absolutely oppressive and demeaning jobs he ever had in his life. He could hardly believe what people at that level of employment were forced to put up with. Barbara Ehrenreich writes very well about it in Nickel and Dimed.

MadPriest said...

I did it the other way round. I worked for nearly twenty years in "soul-sucking enterprise(s)" without a thought of going to university. I agree that it's mostly unpleasant but, on the other hand, I did my best thinking whilst I was in mundane jobs.

Some jobs can be like praying the rosary. In the end you are doing your job almost without knowing you're doing it and this gives you the opportunity to spend, even your working time contemplating stuff. Einstein, of course, is the obvious example of this phenomenom. The danger is you can end up begrudging the idea of a job that requires a lot of mental attention because it would take you away from the peaceful situation you have become used to.

There is also the matter of humility. In a dead end job you are forced into a humble position and this brings its own freedom and knowledge. The fact that you are worried that people will not realise how clever you are probably means that you need this education.

However, at the end of the day, it is a shit job, and so, as one who has been there, you have my greatest sympathy.