When this week people on Twitter were listing their first seven jobs, using the hashtag #myfirstsevenjobs, I almost joined, but I hesitated. What was I – higher educated, privileged, successful – trying to say by informing other people about the seven jobs I had ever had?
Judging by the way the media covered the trending topic, it seems that people were mostly interested in finding out about the first jobs of successful and famous people. Apparently, we are fascinated by the fact that the rich and famous once had jobs that bear no relationship whatsoever to their now fruitful careers – especially when they were ‘going through hell’.
Going through hell
For example, one website headlined ‘THE #FIRSTSEVENJOBS OF SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE’ and asked the reader: ‘Did you go through hell before doing what you love?’ Before reading several lists of the seven first jobs of celebrities, we are assured that ‘Climbing your way to the top isn’t easy’. I think this sums up why #myfirstsevenjobs became trending, and why successful people may be eager to share their first odd jobs: by listing these jobs, especially when they involve manual labour, successful people can show that they worked hard to get where they are now.
Listing one’s first seven jobs is only interesting when one has ‘escaped from hell’. Hell here means doing manual labour or boringly repetitive tasks. This makes tweeting about one’s first jobs a particularly classed practice. Tweeting #myfirstsevenjobs becomes a way to distinguish oneself from less successful others. I suspect it is much less interesting, both for those who tweet as for those who follow, to read about someone whose #1 job was in retail or catering or cleaning, and who still is doing that job present-day. Put differently, we don’t find it so interesting that some people may still ‘go through hell’; what we really want to hear about is how people went through hell and then made their way out.
Climbing to the top
Moreover, through ‘revealing’ that they once were labourers, successful and privileged people can demonstrate that they, too, once belonged to the ‘working classes’. In this way, they can relate to ‘normal’ or ‘average’ people, downplaying any privileged circumstances that have helped them ‘climb to the top’. Moreover, flaunting odd jobs, especially when they involve hard labour, suggests that everybody starts at the same low position, and that opportunities to ‘climb to the top’ are equally distributed. Those who are successful just worked harder to get there.
It’s why we love ‘from rags to riches’ stories, and why people wish to believe that princes Kate Middleton is ‘Cinderella come to life’, even though her parents were already millionaires when she married prince William. We wish to ignore and deny inequality in socioeconomic opportunities.
It’s rather misleading, however, to attach much meaning to successful people’s first jobs. The jobs that people did as a teenager or during college will often have little to do with their privileges or future opportunities. The fact that I – now an academic – for years worked on a flower farm (hard labour!) says nothing about my class background. It just reflects what jobs were available for teenagers growing up in a ‘greenhouse area’ and who had no education yet. I always knew, as did probably my adult co-workers for whom this was a career, that the flower industry would not be my future.
But people tweeting #myfirstsevenjobs also made me think about the value in actually doing odd jobs and hard labour before one becomes successful, especially for those who grow up in privileged environments. I thought about this after reading in this article in the NRC, titled ‘From construction worker to anchorman’ , that higher-educated young people in the Netherlands are now less likely to do such jobs. Facing increasing competition for high-status jobs, young people are more carefully choosing their first jobs, even when they are just summer jobs. They prefer jobs that help them develop relevant work skills or that will help them build a useful social network. In addition, as there are in general fewer low-skilled jobs available, they are also less available to students.
If inter-class interaction is essential for mutual understanding, empathy and solidarity, this is an unfortunate development. Of course I am not arguing that students should take the few available low-skilled jobs away from adults who depend on these jobs. However, doing odd jobs may be the only time for higher-educated and privileged people to work together with people whose lives look very different– working together as equals, that is, as opposed to managing others. In addition, it may be the only opportunity for higher-educated people to experience the working life of people who are less privileged than they are.
This experience may be crucial for supporting, for example, good wages and early retirement opportunities for low-skilled workers. Doing those odd jobs, especially those jobs that require hard labour, may be essential for fostering solidarity among the future elites with those who cannot ‘escape’ their first seven jobs.
Perhaps we can use #myfirstsevenjobs not to signal that ‘thank goodness’ we have escaped from the hell that is hard labour. Instead, we can take the opportunity to reflect on what it was like doing those jobs and what it means to still be doing those jobs – and to rethink current policies on wages and labour conditions that undervalue (financially and socially) such work.
Photo by Frans de Wit on Flickr