Monday, January 17, 2005

Job History, Patterns, Hypocrisy

This has been bugging me for a while. Sorry for the lengthy personal story here...although I think there is a useful lesson in all this somewhere.

There is currently some tension between my parents and my partner, Laura. This tension all came to a head a few years ago in a very unpleasant incident that I'm not going to get into here. Since then, things have smoothed over and are mostly ok, but every so often I get reminded of that tension. It happened again a few weeks ago in a conversation with my mother.

One of the problems is that Laura's job history before we met and in the first few years of our relationship was not as stable and steady as perhaps my parents may want. There have also been times during which I provided all of the support for our family. I have no problem with this, and I do find it puzzling that they do, considering my mother has never supported herself in her entire life, and my older sister is currently a stay-at-home mom, and they have never uttered a complaint about this. So it seems it is acceptable for a man to support a woman, but not OK for a woman to provide the support for another woman (or man, I imagine).

Anyway, my mom referred to a "pattern" in Laura's work history. In trying to be honest and fair, I look at the same history and I don't see a pattern - I see a normal life. She was working as a receptionist when we met - in a job obtained through a temporary agency. Perhaps I was unclear when I explained this to my parents - or maybe that fact got clouded over in the general haze and angst of my "coming out" that took place right around then. Temporary agencies = temporary jobs, so the fact that the assignment ended was annoying, but no great surprise.

This was followed by temporary position microfilming reports at an agribusiness company. Again, she was placed by a temporary agency in a job never meant to be permanent. She did leave that one on her own because the work was horribly boring and her boss was annoying. Laura got tired of being forced to listen to "sermons on cassette" and other religious broadcasts during work every day. But still, it was never intended to be permanent. There was a finite amount of work the company needed done - that's why they hired through a temporary agency.

This was followed by about 3 years at Starbucks. That hardly seems the stuff of terrible patterns to me. My parents' viewpoint is a bit skewed, I think, given that my dad just retired after 32 years at the same company. I don't know a single person my age who expects to be at the same company for 32 years -- not one -- so while his experience might have been great for him, it is hardly representative of what my life or my peers' lives will be like. It seems unfair to judge our modern job-hopping ways by a standard that is unattainable for most of us nowadays.

Laura voluntarily left Starbucks and did a short stint selling furniture -- mostly to earn significantly more money. This was not a particularly good fit and still didn't achieve her goal of getting out of retail work. At this point she realized (perhaps a bit late) that she'd never escape dead-end jobs without a college degree, so she went back to school and earned a Bachelor's degree. It was during that time that I provided all the support for the two of us. She considered continuing on with a masters and PHD in Archaeology with the goal of doing research and working as a college professor, but a four-week long field school digging in Alabama made her realize that an academic archeology career was not for her. Aside from the fact that the reality of archeology was much less interesting than the theory, it exacerbated severe tendonitis problems in her arms. It would be physically impossible for her to do the work on a regular basis.

When she made this decision, I found myself dreading telling my parents. Would they think poorly of her for changing her mind? Or would they manage to comprehend that the whole point of the field school was like an internship - try out a possible career and see if you like it before spending thousands of dollars and going deep into debt for graduate school?

She's worked a regular office job now for the last 2 years, and has hated it for about the last year and a half. Yet she has hung in there, partly because we liked the extra income, partly because the economy hasn't been conducive to job hunting right now, and partly because I couldn't stand the idea of telling my parents about another job change right now. In a few days she is leaving that job and I can't say that I'm sorry about it, even if it does cause some temporary financial hardship. It seems silly to be miserable for 8 hours a day when you have alternatives. (We also have some future plans I can't go into right now that make this latest change make good sense).

Yes, undeniably she has changed jobs and career paths numerous times. Is this a "pattern" that somehow suggests some sort of problem? To them, it is, although I am not sure what the "problem" suggested by this pattern is supposed to be. Flakiness? An unwillingness to stick with something? She's stuck with me for nearly nine years now, so clearly she is more than capable of the long haul. Since I understand the reasons and motivations behind every change, I don't see any sort of pattern or problem.

That is not to say that Laura has been some sort of unfortunate victim of circumstance. We've discussed her job history ad nauseam and she's done some significant soul-searching on this topic. The biggest common denominator among the short-term jobs that didn't work out has been poor choices - Laura tends to panic and grab the first job that comes along, regardless of whether or not it is a "good fit". That is the exact reason she ended up in her current position that she hates - it was the first offer she received after finishing her degree and the field school. It was a bad decision, but it wasn't motivated by laziness or lack of work ethic or a desire for constant change or any other negative trait - it was motivated purely by the fear of a crummy economy and the belief that any job is better than no job. I imagine that my parents criticism of her periods of joblessness probably helps foster the very fear that leads to poor choices like this!

Finally, there is just a hint of hypocrisy in all of this. When my father finished school back in the 60's, he bounced through three jobs in three different states (Connecticut, New Mexico, and Texas) before landing the job here in Illinois where he has stayed for those exalted 32 years. This was in about a 6-8 year timeframe, so it averaged to a couple years per job. Not only did he job-hop - he made his family move across the country each time! I was two when we moved to Illinois, so I missed out on most of these moves.

Of course, he has good reasons for this - they didn't like living out east, he was laid off from the job in New Mexico, he hated the Texas job and was terribly unhappy there, the Illinois job was a far better opportunity, etc. I have no reason to doubt these reasons and I'm not going assign negative attributes to my dad or talk about his "unstable pattern" because of this. I just wish my parents would grant Laura the same benefit of the doubt as she works towards figuring out her own career path.

Getting away from the pure personal story for a moment here, there is a lesson in all of this - it is very easy to look at a situation, jump to conclusions, and judge someone without having all the facts. I know I am as guilty of that as anyone else - you read an article or hear a story about some situation involving strangers and immediately condemn someone without necessarily knowing what really happened or the motivations of the people involved. Perhaps if I was on the outside looking at this situation, I might feel the same way my parents do and wonder about Laura's stability. By the same token, an outsider in 1973 looking at my dad's job history up to that point might have burst into laughter at the idea that he would stay in his new job for 32 years!

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