Last week I wrote Rich People Don’t Have Jobs to point out one of the most important distinctions in American life: the one that separates the people who work out of necessity from the people who either don’t work or work purely for personal satisfaction.
Usually, a distinction that basic corresponds to a pair of one-syllable words: young/old, boy/girl, rich/poor, black/white, smart/dumb, gay/straight, and so on. People like to talk about important categories, so they give them nice short names.
But what happens when there’s a distinction people don’t talk about? Then the words are longer and sound like scientific classifications. When I was young, nobody was supposed to talk about men who love men or women who love women, so they were homosexuals rather than heterosexuals. I first heard the word gay (in that sense) in the 70s, right about the time it became OK to talk about gays.
You know you’ve really hit a taboo subject when you can’t think of a word at all. Picture Freud laboriously searching his dictionary, looking for the word that describes a boy’s lust for his mother. Sorry, Sigmund, you’ll have to coin oedipal yourself.
That’s where I was. I’m not as creative with mythology as Freud, but I suppose I could have hyphenated something: necessity-workers and satisfaction-workers, say. It would have sounded sociological, an academic distinction rather than something people butt their heads against every day.
The other approach is to be outrageous. Gay was outrageous, back when it was coined. It made boys smirk at the idea of donning “gay apparel” at Christmas, or Fred and Barney having “a gay old time” down in Bedrock. A lot of people hated the homosexual community’s appropriation of a perfectly good one-syllable word – as if homosexuality were something people should want to talk about, as if English should reconfigure itself to make those conversations easier.
I decided to be outrageous. So I called work-you-do-out-of-necessity a job and work-you-do-for-satisfaction a hobby. “Rich people don’t have jobs,” I said, “they have hobbies.”
I heard from a lot of people who hated it. (And others who loved it.) Many wanted to talk about the words rather than what they represented. Some accused me of saying that rich people don’t work. (I didn’t.) Or of denigrating well-to-do “hobbyists”. (Why anyone would feel denigrated to be classed with Warren Buffett and Tiger Woods escapes me.) There were the usual write-offs of “class warfare”. Some of the wilder comments I saw were by Facebook friends of my article-sharing Facebook friends. (One thought the point of my post was to beatify my mother and demonize Ann Romney.)
Here’s what I think is going on: America is in denial about inequality and class. It’s fine to talk (occasionally) about rich and poor, but only as a difference of degree. The one has a new BMW and the other an old junker, but they both get where they’re going. The one eats at a four-star restaurant while the other has a bag lunch, but they both eat.
What’s taboo is to suggest that there’s something qualitatively different about living with money. We’re fine with the idea that a concierge doctor will come out to see a billionaire while a waitress goes to the emergency room — a little more convenience, that’s what money gives you a right to expect. But it’s taboo to suggest that the billionaire will live in situations where the waitress will die.
If we don’t talk about those qualitative differences, though, the conversation gets distorted. Inevitably it tilts towards justifying the privileges of the rich, because they appear to be so much better at life than the working poor.
Take the situation I focused on: the necessity-driven working-class housewife versus the wealthy stay-at-home mom. Picture how each might cook for her family. All day, the less affluent one has been juggling the laundry, the chauffeuring, and the baby-minding. Running out of time, she combines the left-over hamburger from last night’s tacos with a jar of Ragu and serves a spaghetti good enough to keep body and soul together for another day.
Meanwhile the wealthy woman sends her cook home early, shops for fresh organic ingredients, and then spends all afternoon in the kitchen trying out what she’s been learning in her Italian cuisine class. The meal she produces is better in every way: tastier, healthier, more artfully presented. Proud of her achievement, she is a more pleasant dinner companion than the harried working-class mom.
If you imagine that the two women are doing the same thing, then you’re forced to conclude that the rich woman is doing it better. Not only is her product of higher quality, it’s superior for virtuous reasons: She devoted more time, searched for better ingredients, and applied more expert knowledge.
It’s that way across the board. If you imagine that necessity-driven families and surplus-enjoying families are doing the same things, it’s obvious that (on the whole) the richer families do them better. Once you accept that frame, you’ll be driven to the conclusion that wealthier families are just superior at doing the stuff life is made of. From there it’s a short jump to the conclusion that each family gets the life it deserves.
But they’re not doing the same things. In America, class differences are qualitative, not just quantitative. Rich and poor lead different lives.
College students who spend the summer manning a cash register or an assembly line are not doing the same things as the middle-aged people they work next to. Living on ramen while you finish your MBA is not the same as living on ramen from now on. Scrimping to save for your Caribbean vacation is not the same as scrimping to pay off what you owe the dentist. The “jobs” of CEOs who choose not to retire to the Hamptons (yet) bear no resemblance to the jobs their secretaries and salesmen do.
The fundamental difference between the classes in America is not the difference between steak and hamburger. It’s the difference between choice and necessity, between striving for fulfillment and striving for survival.
We need qualitatively different words to express those differences. Jobs and hobbies — not perfect, maybe, but better than any alternatives I can think of.