Friday, March 22, 2013

Work to live or live to work?

Nicoleandmaggie recently asked readers whether they could visualize financial independence for themselves, and Dr. Isis apparently shocked the blogosphere with a recent post about maybe quitting academe and doing something else. To me, these seemed to get at a deeper question: do you work to live or live to work?

Unless you're independently wealthy, you have to work; that's not the question. Maybe not surprisingly, the few people I know who are financially independent in nicoleandmaggie's terms don't seem to regret leaving work one bit. I also don't mean choosing between family and jobs (work/life balance), which has a different set of issues from loving the job that you do. This is basically the Office Space "What would you do if you had a million dollars?" question.

But a lot of people who are fully employed at jobs that would seem to provide a decent salary and job satisfaction would still quit in a heartbeat if they could afford it. This completely unscientific poll includes a lot of the First Person columnists over at the Chronicle, who are unhappy in academe, and the few people I've talked to about this, including nonacademics like lawyers and contractors and architects. They work to live and wouldn't do it if they didn't have to, even if their jobs would seem to be satisfying otherwise. That's not to say that all lawyers, etc., feel like this; it's not about the job per se but about an emotional approach to the position.

I'd define the "live to work" academics  as those who, despite having to work for the money and the frustrations of the workplace, get up most mornings with a sense that what they're doing is important and that there's a contribution they can make by teaching, writing, and publishing--that what they're doing in the world makes a difference.  I felt this way during the many years I was an adjunct, and I feel it now.  It's economically unsound if we feel this way--that's what allows universities to exploit part-time faculty shamefully--yet it's what a lot of academics feel, I think.

Academe is just a job, in a way, yet it's not because it brings up all the Holy Calling issues that erupt whenever leaving it gets mentioned.

So how about you? Work to live or live to work?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

A little of both. Early on my drive to work comes a billboard advertising the state lottery, with the current numbers, so I often spend part of my drive thinking what I would do if I won N million dollars (not that I play the lottery, you understand, just that this is something to think about on the long drive). Grumpy though I am right now with my department and uni, I think one thing I would do with N million is try to buy my way out of some of my classes. I would like to teach a 2-1 or even 1-1, to give some structure to my life, and because in small quantities teaching is much more fun than when one feels overwhelmed by it. Also I'd outright give the department some money if I had enough to give away and not just enough to replace my current salary. But I also would like to spend much more time on research. Then, as an academic, there's the question of institutional authority: maybe I wouldn't worry about that once I'd published a couple of books, but it is useful to be employed somewhere, rather than wearing the label "independent scholar." There are some really notable independents, and then there are the amateur crackpots and people with personality problems who would never get hired, so I would like at least to be "emerita" of LRU rather than just "independent." But I can't imagine giving up research. There's nothing else I want to take up instead, and I'd get bored if my whole life were reading and crossword puzzles.

But it is a very complex subject. I have lost a friend because, once she had money, her life changed so much. It wasn't the money itself, but that it enabled her to change careers to something in which I have only a mild interest, and apparently our friendship---or my side of it---was built on shared academic interests. No doubt I am too narrow, but I don't think either of us anticipated this. Financial independence can have ripple effects that may take years to show up. Even if I tried to keep teaching, maybe something would change enough that over time, it just wouldn't work any longer.

Contingent Cassandra said...

This is an even trickier question for those of us in contingent (or otherwise unsatisfactory/underpaid/dead-end) academic jobs.

I don't have much of the Holy Calling issue (for all that I belong to a branch of Protestant Christianity that takes the issue of calling quite seriously, and believes that various kinds of secular work can, indeed, be a calling). I do think that academic work is a pretty good fit for my temperament, personality, skills etc. A more research-oriented job would be even better (I'm an introvert, and although I enjoy teaching, and think I'm relatively good at it, my current 4/4 teaching-only job is not really the best use of my skills. I should be doing some writing and research, as part of my job, not as a semi-hobby, and, after 12 years in my current job, I know the place and our students well enough that I should be putting some of my observations, and my analytical and organizational skills, to use in service/committee work).

There's also the problem that I'm underpaid, and insecure. Though I have a full-time salary and benefits, I don't make as much as an entry-level tenure-track professor in my department, and I have fewer opportunities for raises. I also have to plan for the possibility of my job being eliminated before I'm ready to retire -- and that will be some time, since my retirement contributions are in proportion to my salary -- i.e., small.

All of the above, of course, would be a good argument for leaving academia. However, I haven't yet identified a non-academic job that I think would be a better fit (well, not one with better pay and benefits; I'd probably be pretty happy as a freelance writer, if I could pay the bills, but that's even chancier than my current gig).

So, I don't know. Academe is, indeed, just a job, but, as DEH points out, jobs are complex things, made up of a bunch of constituent parts, from the activities one performs to the schedule and location on/in which one performs them, to the pay, benefits, degree of stability, and amount of autonomy/input in governance involved. And they vary by field as well as status (lab scientists, for instance, tend to be on campus much more, which may make industry jobs look less different to them). It's a good thing to break them down to their constituent parts now and then, I think, and examine the value of each from various perspectives, but that activity doesn't necessarily yield any clear or easy answers.

Anonymous said...

It's all about the compensating differentials. Somewhere we've got a post (or two or three) on this question... one of my favorite answers was the person who said if ze were fabulously wealthy, ze'd endow hir own chair and just do the parts of academia ze wanted to do.

Anonymous said...

Aha! That was YOU.

undine said...

Dame Eleanor--our thoughts converge almost exactly, right down to the lottery fantasies and not wanting to give up research. "Emerita" for some day in the future has a nice ring to it.

Contingent Cassandra--no clear answers indeed. It's tough to sort out all those strands of the job, and tougher still to figure out what might be a better fit, if anything.

Nicoleandmaggie--thanks! I forgot about that post but would still opt the solution.

Jonathan said...

I would set myself up in academic chair and then work only with students I wanted to and continue to do my research. Imagine being able to fire your students the minute they get irritating

undine said...

Jonathan--I think of an endowed chair as being like the king without the crown, so yes!

Anonymous said...

Buy my way out of some classes like DEH or more interestingly, take a job in Latin America (those do not pay well, but are interesting) and have this $ as backup.

That is due to age; I can tolerate being a professor in current field if I have research time, so this is what I would do now. If I were younger I would do one of the things I always wanted to do, ideally Arabic immersion and then PhD in Near Eastern Studies (the degree I always wanted) or if not, law school to work on global prison industrial complex.

HM, I would still do that now, I could do degree at UNAM or USP (do Latin American degree and I could be a lit professor while doing it).

More modestly and realistically, though, what I would do first, without buying out of classes or anything, is pay off debt and fix house, so I could start living with a little more ease, be gone more at weekends. See how I felt then.

Contingent Cassandra should be hired to tenure somewhere.