Thanks to the current unemployment epidemic, careers are not what they used to be. The concept of careerdom is actually getting the Archie Bunker raspberry at some social gatherings.
We non-career types can finally speak up, without getting the eyes-down-the-nose treatment. We can admit that we work to pay the bills rather than to grasp that crystal of careerdom -- success. What a relief for those of us who didn't want to be doctors or lawyers since the seventh grade. What a blessing for us children of the '50s who never quite found a place in the generation that includes "Leave It to Beaver" and woman's liberation.
I was the fourth child of a Washington, D.C., attorney and a college English teacher. The lasting impressions of my youth are of my father returning home at 6 o'clock, his navy blue suit and pin-striped tie slightly askew, the leather briefcase an appendage to his large veined hand and the perpetual crease between his eyes a tatoo of something gravely important -- work. I loved to pop open the leather briefcase, for inside I would always find two crisp legal pads and masses of finely sharpened pencils.
As for my mother, she was always at the dining-room table with a stack of blue books on one side and a black spiral grade book on the other. I loved to peer over her shoulder at the long list of names written in tiny script. I became quite familiar with those names linked to Cs and Ds, for they belonged to the students who always called her at dinnertime to ask for an extension on a deadline, or to report some grave personal mishap that would keep them from attending class the next day.
With these role models, naturally I went to college with the notion that one day I also would be a devoted career person.
My first professional habitat reeked of success. The offices had cathedral ceilings and the people who worked in them moved about in ghost-like trances. A subdued atmosphere permeated the entire building and cloaked its occupants in an aura of righteousness and dignity. But the leather couches that lined the great marble halls, the Oriental rugs that lay in state, the brass table lamps and antique chandeliers were more important than the people who worked there. After four years of obscurity, I came to the conclusion that employes of the organization usually were rewarded only upon retirement or death. Not willing to wait that long, I took another position.
My second professional job was with the federal government, where I thought I would find real-life situations. I actually looked forward to the cog-in-the-wheel mentality of government after the enigmatic aura of my former job.
So I left a bronze and marble mausoleum -- where the extras included a sweet-faced maid in a doily hat and ruffled apron, whose sole purpose was to wipe the drinking fountains and dust the windowsills -- for a brick cave, where the cleaning service was limited to emptying the trash on alternate Fridays. The decor consisted of millions of pieces of paper, littered with phone numbers, thumb-tacked to cardboard partitions.
Since the agency I selected was on the president's hit list, every task I completed ended up in limbo, like so many loose spokes on a wheel. I left that job after a year, with the realization that I wasn't really cut out for the career game. Now I work to make money, or because I enjoy the task, and since these two reasons rarely overlap, I hold various positions from writer to wreath-maker to gardener.
I've given much thought to the concept of careerdom in my life, and I have decided that if having a career simply means having a respectable reply to "and what do you do?" then I suppose I have had a career. If the trappings of careerdom include several stylish business suits, a desk and a telephone of one's own, a large enough salary to finance an annual vacation, and your name on interoffice memorandums, then I suppose I have had a career. But what I really wanted out of a career was the feeling of pride and satisfaction, both elusive concepts even in a healthy job market.
I am relieved to be off the traditional career ladder, especially now that the old rules could be trashed in the name of an ailing economy. But if any good can come out of the unemployment crunch, it may be that the veil will be lifted permanently from the career myth. A career, with its respectability, status, high income, etc., is desirable and obtainable to some people. But we need to remember that it is desirable and respectable to work at something you enjoy, or to work simply to make money.
Salli Pfoutz is an Alexandria free-lance writer with a success suit in mothballs, just in case.