This Saturday reflection will begin about the particulars of my personal situation, but I will use that as a starting point for a broader reflection on public policy and attitudes.
In less than 6 weeks I will turn 67. I had retired from teaching, but at the request of friends stepped in to a challenging high needs middle school in DC. It was stretching me, but I had to leave it to care for my spouse in the early days of her cancer treatment.
We are now rapidly reaching the point where she will not need as much close attention from me. It will be sufficient to have her dressed and in her back brace ("Gregor") - she could if necessary take a cab to work and then have me pick her up in the evening. Thus I have embarked on an active job search.
Search is the operable word. I am looking, I am applying, but so far with little positive response.
There is the reality of my age. For any kind of position, people perhaps legitimately have doubts about my senior status. Of course, while compared to when I was younger my energy flags a bit, but I can still run people a decade or more younger than me into the ground, as both my wife and colleagues from my last school can attest.
As a teacher, there is also the concern of compensation. Public schools are supposed to pay based on experience and education, which means I can cost about twice what they would pay for a beginning teacher, even though they save on benefits - I am covered under my wife's health care.
For non-teaching jobs there is the issue of my having been in the classroom for almost two decades, and many employers not understanding how broad a skill set that gives me.
Then there is the personal restriction. There are positions for which I would be considered a strong candidate, but would require me to surrender the voice I have developed writing on line about the many topics that interest me. Were I, for example, to be in the communications effort of a union or a government agency as a political appointee, i would no longer have the freedom to express as I choose.
Thus I remain for the present unemployed without specific opportunities.
Yet at least I have some choices not available to other of my age cohort.
Many jobs place restrictions on us. We may handle confidential information we cannot share. We may be required to sign non-disclosure agreements, or non-compete agreements that can restrict future employment elsewhere for some period of time.
Most people like to do work they enjoy, work that provides them with a sense of meaning for the time and energy expended in fulfilling its requirement.
Many people have relatively little choice, and may be forced to take jobs to stay afloat personally and financially.
Many are grateful to be able to pay their bills and have enough left over for things they truly enjoy - an evening out with friends or family, travel, buying books to read. . .
We have had much discussion in the context of health care reform of how some people were locked into jobs because of insurance restrictions, notably preexisting conditions on the part of the employee or a member of the family insured under that policy.
Lack of job mobility also exists when there are few alternative opportunities. This is very true nowadays for many teachers, when districts have been forced to lay off teachers because of financial difficulties funding the schools. One may have to continue to work for an abusive administrator, or in an unhealthy district.
Here as well on the surface I am luckier than most. I live in a metropolitan area that has three state-equivalent jurisdictions and I am licensed in all three: Virginia where I live, Maryland where I taught for 16 years, and the District of Columbia. DC has one school system. Within a one hour commute from my home at rush hour I have in Maryland at least five districts other than the one in which I taught (although one, MOntgomery County, will not hire people drawing a Maryland pension as I am). There are a few more than that south of the Potomac River.
There are also a ton of charters and independent schools, although some have a prejudice against those coming from public schools - which is a bit silly, since in many ways it is far more difficult to teach in the public setting than in most independent schools. Thus what appears on the surface to be a wide range of opportunities is far less encouraging than one might expect.
As I write this, I sit in my local Starbucks. On a Saturday morning there is a wide range of customers. Were I hear in the earlier afternoon of a weekday, there might be a few college students, a few mothers with with infants, and a batch of men my age or greater for whom this is the one place to get out of the house and away from the tv. Some talk with one another, some read or play with their computers. A couple sit here watching others and/or staring into space.
Some people want to continue to work to feel as if there is a purpose to their lives.
If I walk a few doors away to the local supermarket in this shopping center / strip mall, I will see a number of elderly men who gather up the carts from the parking lot, who bag.
If we define our worth in society by our work, which often we do, one who is not working or who may be doing what we consider societally to be meanial is likely not to be valued.
What you have read so far is preface to the real focus of this post.
I think we need to redefine the nature of work and employment, as well how we tie certain benefits to employment status.
So long as our definition of education and government is primarily economic - which is unfortunately very much the case in modern day America - we will also limit how we define work and the value of human beings, including those who may be no longer able to the work they did before.
I realize this is a broad and complex subject.
Perhaps I am not the person to broach it. After all, I have had the opportunity largely to make my living by my brains rather than my brawn, although in the past have waited tables, served as a bouncer in bars, unloaded trucks - sometimes for extra money, on a few occasions to have any income at all (and no insurance, but i was young and relatively healthy, so it did not bother me then).
While I have a few courses in economic matters and accounting and have read widely on related subjects, I am by no means an economist.
Nor am I a trained sociologist or cultural sociologist or political scientist.
I am merely someone who has lived more than six and half decades, who observes a great deal, and who ponders about things. That does not make me a philosopher. Perhaps it makes me at least as qualified as some of the pundits who bloviate - as do I - online, in print, over the airwaves or on cable. I include myself among such bloviators because I not only blog but have as a result had opportunities to express myself through the other media as well.
If the profit motive is the primary driver of our society we will continue to see extreme inequity, and far too many people will suffer and have little enjoyment out of their lives.
Which immediately brings to mind words of Henry David Thoreau, that most men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Surely in America we can have a different path, a different structure.
As a teacher of government, I wanted my students to be empowered to be active citizens in a liberal democracy. It would then be their choice how or if to do so.
I wanted them to have the opportunity to explore their passions, not to have to set them aside because of the emphasis on economics, on being "productive" for corporations.
If they chose a corporate path, I wanted it to be a choice.
I should be allowed to choose to live at a lesser lifestyle but one that is different and not have to continue to work in a backbreaking or unsatisfying job merely to survive - here I note I personally have that choice, but many do not.
When the Founders wrote "We the people" they were not thinking of corporate entities. Somehow we cannot allow the existence of same to dominate government and society at the expense of individual human persons.
Somehow if work is to have dignity then working conditions need to be such that we do not demean those who do the work.
I don't at this moment have answers, only questions, observations, concerns.
Certainly I know that I was effective as a teacher for several reasons related to this reflection
- I cared about my students as individuals, with interests and passions beyond my course
- I was given a great deal of freedom in how I approached my instructional responsibilities, which enabled me to meet the needs of most of my students
- because I was treated as a professional, I as willing to put far more than minimally required by my employment
- I had the security of due process provided by "tenure" and a union to protect me from potentially abusive authority figures (and I encountered a couple)
- I had the security of a generous employer-sponsored health care system and paid sick days (up to ten per year, which could be carried over) even though I almost never took an unplanned day off for health reasons - I think two or three total in 17 years
- I knew I was working in a situation that were I to stay long enough would provide me with some financial security through a defined benefit pension
Take away any of those factors, and I would not have been as effective. I might have had to worry about CYA with abusive administrators, or had to work a second job to have enough for medical costs, or . . . you get the picture.
I realize there are dangers in extrapolating from my personal experience.
Still, as I ponder what may come next - beyond my continuing to observe and write, usually without financial compensation - I want to see what I believe is possible: an American society which is more human, more generous to ordinary folks, less concerned with the accrual of power and wealth.
Is that possible?
IF we do not try, it will not be.
But what if we do?