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Working, Networking, &Notworking


ISSUE:  Spring 1995

Looking for work at 60 was not what I had in mind. However improvident I may once have been in the pursuit of imperative pipe dreams, it never ocurred to me years ago that I might remain a job seeker for the rest of my natural life. Nor was it foretold among the dependably employed that out-of-the-blue layoff and summary retirement would be their earthly reward. Given that we have always venerated toil in emulation of the unremitting Puritans, it does seem a paradox that work itself should continue to be our chief perplexity, that job seeking should still be a chore most people dread, and that job keeping should have become a game of chance. Glib assurances that the “emerging global economy” will soon redeem us all do little to relieve a pervasive disquiet. The certitudes that used to steady the workaday life have given way to what the Chinese call “interesting times” in which egg roll eclipses payroll. No doubt economics and demographics, metaphysics, fiber optics, and quantum aerobics, to say nothing of dogmatics and cataleptics, or the critical need for better hydraulics so as to ensure a more tranquil gastronomies—no doubt all these intractable urgencies bear on our predicament. But I leave “em lay where Jesus flung ” um, in the extragalactic void beyond my ken. What grips me instead is a pair of words, professional and networking, that takes up more room than it should in our vocabulary of work.

Promiscuous use of professional has nearly emptied the word of meaning. In The American Language H.L.Mencken says nothing about professional or profession, presumably because in his day there was nothing much to say. Both words were common coin, and common sense determined their value. Years ago when the professions were few in number, they formed decorous enclaves within a society that smiled on the go-getter and his freewheeling ways. In acknowledgement of this contrast, professional became the adjective for defining behavior rather than status. The conduct of a lawyer, for example, who honored the code his predecessors and peers had ordained was counted professional. Yet professional conduct was expected of lawyers to begin with, and therefore no practitioner was thought deserving, much less exemplary, simply for respecting custom.

In recent years professional has ventured beyond the established professions into the realm of Help Wanted and the hourly wage. There it blithely moonlights as a noun. Hat-check girls and soda jerks, had they persevered, shoulder-to-shoulder with the cosmetologists, would nowadays speak, without self-consciousness, not only of their professions, but also of themselves as professionals. And in between jobs they would hire out as professional temporaries, temporary professionals, or both by turns, without confusion or loss of caste.Professional, having once defined a manner of doing, now denotes a state of being.

Extracting nouns from adjectives would seem a harmless occupation, for even a Usage Panel tolerates departure from orthodoxy when the convenience gained is demonstrable. Liberal and conservative have long been naturalized as nouns, and no one but a pedant would continue to insist that they be used as adjectives only. But just as paranoia can sometimes be traced to causes rooted in the real world, so pedantic recoil from certain jumped-up locutions can some-times amount to more than a quibble over taste. In this instance my objection to professional, the noun, has less to do with language than with our self-imposed conditions of work.

So who exactly is a professional? Any practitioner of a profession necessarily qualifies and always has, even though this noun never used to be current. In the days when “the professions” meant the learned professions, founded on formal training and certification, lawyers were called lawyers and doctors were called doctors. No one called them professionals, or thought it necessary, when seeking out either, to stipulate preference for a “professional,” as if there were more than one kind.

Though customary usage survives intact, it now includes the broader range of contemporary idiom. For year by year professional, used as a noun, has become entrenched in common speech as a mild, all-purpose honorific. It no longer pertains to livelihood of a particular kind or occupational identity. Mickey Kaus of The New Republic notes in his sagacious book, The End of Equality, that classified ads for roommates, tenants, and lovers, limit the search to professionals; and as a devout egalitarian he regrets “the routine acceptance of “professionals” as a class apart. . . . The implication, of course, is that professionals are not just richer, but more civilized, better educated, wittier, smarter, cleaner, prettier.”

Perhaps at this point I should declare myself: much as I could do with being smarter and cleaner—most of us, in my view, are pretty enough—I have no profession, no standing as a professional let alone the ambition to become one, and therefore no turf to protect. I cherish no covert resentment against clerks who presume to call themselves professionals because their presumption costs me nothing. As a job applicant I have never been refused work, so far as I know, on grounds that my résumé does not say professional. Evidently what it does say reminds my interviewers of the ultimate vanity of labor—a melancholy feature of daily life the résumé is meant to disguise. Though employers might be excused for resisting this reminder, they ought not to take it quite so hard.

But suppose your résumé” slings the password, professional, if only in some figurative sense: is it at all likely that a single, overworked polysyllable could incline Personnel in your favor? It might.Professional still carries positive freight besides the qualities Mr. Kaus enumerates; it still implies skill based on codified knowledge, adherence to high standards, and a measure of independence worthy of trust. For variety we shorten the word to salute a sense of style, as in “You take Harry, now he’s a real pro.” Whether Harry got that way by mastering the obduracies of a profession is irrelevant, and it would be rude of you to ask. It matters only that Harry has style, and if he gets by on style alone, he wouldn’t be the first. Every careerist understands as if by instinct that knowledge and skill count for little compared with the cachet conferred by the title, old pro.

Despite this aura of the honorific, professional has long been used as a pejorative, and profession can be double-edged as well. Call your congressman a professional patriot and you pay him no compliment. Compound your effrontery by calling him a professional politician and there is nothing left to say. Ireland and the Irish were once thought dear, but the stage Irishman, by definition a professional, has always been a bore. Is Gore Vidal a professional homosexual? Is Jane Fonda a professional gorgon? It depends on your point of view. On occasion professional substitutes in everyday usage for Johnny-one-note. So employed, it serves to ridicule the advocate of a cause. To say instead that Mr. Vidal and Ms. Fonda are militant would imply no derision at all.

Profession is fraught with comparable ambiguities. “The oldest profession,” for example, masquerades as a jocular euphemism, but only among those who hold the professions in high regard. For the rest of us whose feelings of reverence are less intense, the conceit falls flat, devoid of euphemistic effect. Indeed this apparent fig leaf could be taken for a public relations ploy, a strategem adopted by the numberless moral majorities that stand guard over American Civilization. One can imagine those realists reckoning that the surest way to give prostitution a bad name would be to stand by the inherited sobriquet, to continue stigmatizing as a profession what might otherwise command respect as the quintessential private enterprise. It may be their solicitude for laissez faire that has spared us “the oldest joint-venture” and similar turns of phrase.

Roughing up the respectable, which kept George Bernard Shaw in trim for a lifetime, impelled him to write Mrs, Warren’s Profession. When the play opened in New York in 1905, it caused one of the noisier outcries in the history of modern drama. It was too much for the New York audience that prostitution should be presented as fit subject matter for the legitimate stage, and simply intolerable that it should be likened to a profession. Twenty years had to pass before another producer would risk it again, and then only in London where the common estimate of the professions was respectful without being worshipful.

Seventy years later our use of profession and professional continues to express deference, despite frequent reports of chicanery high and low. No matter that the leading lawyer in this corner of Maryland had to be disbarred last year for having stolen money from an orphan—who happened also to be his court-appointed ward. Never mind that this year in Baltimore a senior medical type, salaried at $302,500, had to be disciplined for having finagled an unauthorized “raise” of $12, 000 after his request for more money had been expressly denied. The officially credentialed often behave as if programmed for misconduct, as if fearful that the adrenalin might cease to flow without the tonic of recurrent public disgrace. Yet their proclivity for scandal is barely half of it: Warren Burger, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, once proclaimed the average American lawyer to be incompetent, and the current uproar over health care in this country is enough to prompt doubts about the average M.D.Tabloid tales of turpitude and brigandage abound, and some of them turn out to be true. Still, professional remains the honorific of choice among the wistful who gild themselves with honorary titles. Where do they get the notion, if not from barracudas of the bar and magnificos of the medical mills, that “a professional” is the thing to be?

II

No one does more to enrich American fantasies about work than the amateur athletes who elect to “turn pro.” Though they make the switch for the sake of career and with no other end in view, they set an example, nevertheless, that year after year titilates millions. For among amateurs of all varieties, the athlete alone holds a secure place in American public esteem, a position of honor reserved not just for the occasional prodigy but for an entire class. Jockless amateurs with no professional status in prospect are tolerated but seldom acclaimed.

Partiality toward athletes, which is to say, toward amateurs of a particular breed, stems from a fundamental preference. Some years ago two British observers, Edmund Fawcett and Tony Thomas, asserted in The American Condition that “working to make money and putting money to work to make more money are what Americans prize above all things. No sin is graver in America than idleness, no punishment worse than being without work. . . .” Decades earlier Santayana had made essentially the same point in his graduation address to the Oberlin College Class of 1904: “It is sometimes said that the ruling passion in America is the love of money. That seems to me a complete mistake. The ruling passion is the love of business, which is something quite different.” With this bias to sustain them, athletes stand forth as the right kind of amateur: they satisfy the American demand for vivid, purposeful activity; they deliver results that can be quantified, sorted, and compared with a flourish of pseudo-scientific rigor; and in at least some of the more enterprising disciplines they methodically prepare themselves for the transfiguration to come, for their apotheosis as professionals. Unlike the ruck of amateurs, these young men and women strive to qualify for pay, a goal their fans and most other Americans find sufficiently uplifting.

Megabucks in consequence hog the discussion of sports, while the sacrament of conversion exerts the more important influence, all the greater for being subliminal. The athlete is the only amateur who becomes professional by “turning pro.” This magical phrase has no parallel beyond the realm of organized athletics, and no amateur becomes a professional elsewhere on comparable terms or in quite the same way. “Turning pro” suggests an effortless, spontaneous act of choice, as if this change of status were not so much earned as willed. In fact the amateur athlete who can make it as a pro is already an accomplished performer, with a commendable record of self-discipline and singleness of aim. To turn pro is more a matter of confirming hard-won achievement than of announcing a distant goal.

Yet it never quite seems that way to the adoring multitude because of the paradox peculiar to organized athletics. On the one hand athletes are much better known to the general public than amateurs of any other kind; at the same time they constitute an evergreen source from which the professional ranks can be replenished. This fund of experience and demonstrated talent has no counterpart in other vineyards, none for example in law or medicine, nor is anything like it conceivable. On the other hand the path to professional status in sports is often highly individual, far more so than for lawyers and doctors: no factory resembling law school or medical school regiments the athlete’s career. Most professional athletes have little in common beyond their professional standing, and their athletic origins are too diverse to gain a firm purchase on the collective imagination. What counts instead is their status and especially their means of achieving it—the seemingly artless, unconditioned act of “turning pro.”

The reincarnation of athletes, which takes place in front of millions, may explain the popularity of professional recycled as a noun: vicarious delight in youthful success was bound to catch on. In calling themselves professionals most people, if questioned about the term, would shrug it off, speak of livelihood, and say that they get paid for whatever it is they mostly do. They could just as well call themselves commercials and no one would miss the point. It is understood that a commercial bakery, for example, must turn a profit, and that profitability might depend on cutting a corner or two. This is the reason, of course, that home cooking and baking continue forever in favor. Because your Aunt Hillary takes no pay for her blueberry pies, she has the freedom to eschew commercial expedients. As a baker rather than a bookkeeper held hostage by the bottom line, she would never fill a pie with the gelatinous sludge that renders the typical bakery product nearly inedible. But store-bought pies boast a loyal clientele, and so long as they sell, the companies that bake them qualify as commercial, with no other criterion to meet.

Refreshing as it might nowadays be if athletes were to call themselves commercials rather than professionals, they could never make the substitution stick. Nor could anyone else. Since the advent of broadcasting, commercial, used as a noun, has been the exclusive property of advertisers, and the transcendental meaning they gave it years ago has shamed all others. Imagine letting it drop, as a newcomer among neighbors and potential friends, that you consider yourself a commercial. “For what?” would be the automatic rejoinder, and unless you were primed with a terminal comeback your social life would suffer. By default if for no other reason professional prospers as the genteelism most people use to dignify their station in life, and on the face of it they should feel no discomfort simply because so many others reach for the same word. Why not rejoice in a society made up mostly of professionals? How could it matter, anyway, which label gets adopted if almost everyone adopts the same label?

Because professionals define themselves by means of credentials, it follows that every increase in the number of practitioners will swell the cataract of credentials the society must somehow absorb. Perverse nostalgia for Prohibition once moved W.C.Fields to warn that we were at risk of drowning in “rivers of highballs and lakes of martinis.” For himself he had reason to worry; for the rest of us he feared the wrong excess. Though we are indeed awash, and may yet flounder, the waves of befuddlement that break over us rise from a Sargasso-like Sea of credentials. Alas, this unnatural wonder is entirely of our own making. Late last century William James noted that “America is a nation rapidly drifting towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast state. . . . Other nations suffer terribly from the Mandarin disease. Are we doomed to suffer like the rest?” So it would seem, for our Mandarin tendencies have grown ever more pronounced.

Innocent though our embrace of credentials may be, that innocence spares us none of the consequences. After serving as a lawyer in the parlement of Bordeaux, Montaigne concluded that “laws remain in credit not because they are just, but because they are laws. That is the mystic foundation of their authority; they have no other.” And to preserve that authority, he thought it advisable to keep laws simple and few. Perhaps by analogy it might be argued that credentials remain in credit not because they have ever established much of importance about the certified, but simply because they are credentials. A law degree is a law degree and has to be worth something, even if the lawyer bundled with it is a fool. Yet over the years a steady increase in the demand for credentials has elicited an ever growing supply, augmented by a grade inflation the universities do nothing to reverse. Like laws, credentials proliferate at their own expense, and in abundance lose their distinction and force. The unhappy result might be called credential fatigue.

But more has been lost than confidence in the résumé, which would have invited skepticism regardless. The dilution of credentials and consequent doubts about the credentialed have fostered dependence on a nostrum that leaves us worse off than before. But not alone. Purveyors of snake oil, no less than the Gulf states, supply an international market, and in recent years they have numbered the British among their best customers. Kingsley Amis has his protagonist in Jake’s Thing protest that “if there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop.” On our shores of light the equivalent novelty is networking, and with professional it reflects certain changes in the worka-day world that ought not to be altogether welcome. The difference that once obtained between blue collar and white is no longer primary. Today we distinguish instead between the two kinds of stiff. The working stiff, who needs no introduction, soldiers on as before. But we now have in addition the networking stiff who invariably is a soi-disant professional of some sort; to determine of what sort we set up as networkers and solemnly learn to network.

Less than 50 years ago network, the noun, belonged to the jargon of radio broadcasting.(Unlike commercial, it was never an advertiser’s term.) NBC, CBS, and ABC operated networks that spanned the continent, and for a while those “coast-to-coast hook-ups,” as they were called, represented the very latest in advanced communications. Whereas labor organized unions and industry assembled trusts without either party offering much that was new, the broadcasters and their networks appeared to herald the future. Thus did a humdrum word not previously in general use acquire a certain luster by association.

At about the same time the biologists began to report that we communicate with one another out of urgent necessity, that this inborn desire for the incessant exchange of signals is paramount, and even more insistent than longings for sex. So from the standpoint of science, networking is biologically correct, and presumably more respectable than radio. Now-adays a network is understood to be the practical payoff for satisfaction of the urge that governs us all. Good news for the gregarious, endowed as they are with a temperament that networking amply rewards, though who would have thought they needed biology on their side. For they demonstrate that along with the biological, networking has social roots that can promote an intensity of communication beyond anything Nature could have intended. At their mock-social gatherings networkers communicate in grim earnest for all they are worth, and woe betide the tyro who can think of nothing to say.

Networking survives, unlike other neologisms, because it is indispensable. This new coinage springs from new conditions of work and the collective effort to adapt. Which is not to suggest that some of the on-the-make attitudes and maneuvers comprehended by the term networking are wholly unfamiliar. On the contrary we take it as mercifully given that in our conduct of ordinary social life we are seldom strictly disinterested, concerned for a good time and nothing more. Nor does anyone of experience say we should be. The habit of bending native sociability to the pursuit of worldly advantage, when treated as sport, can be moderately clean fun which few would willingly forego. But networking is something else again. What makes it new, at least in some degree, and regrettable in every degree, is narrowness of focus: it tries to reduce the whole of social intercourse to an obligatory exercise in professional self-promotion. As credentials lose power to define or reassure, the nominal, chance acquaintance of network, laboriously cultivated, takes on a compensatory importance. Networking, in short, both manifests and confirms the American penchant for careerist calculation.

If the entire cost of networking could be charged to the networkers, with nothing left over for the rest of us to pay, it would seem only natural to cheer them on. The spectacle, after all, is something to see. Networkers conceive of the professional career as a rational, sequential ascent through the ranks of a hierarchy. This conception achieves expression in such hopeful invocations as “career planning,” “career objective,” and “career move” which imply, along with other slogans of similar slant, that a career is something to be managed, as if it were a kind of program. But this managerial bias, which drives American behavior, can be self-defeating. For as Emerson observed, “Nature hates calculators; her methods are saltatory and impulsive. . . . We thrive by casualties. Our chief experiences have been casual.” If the sedulous networker finds Emerson a trifle remote, there is Work in America to provide official revelation. This report of a Special Task Force commissioned in 1972 by President Nixon’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (as the department was then called) tells us that “for workers at all levels, fate plays the greatest part in how jobs are obtained. People fall into jobs.” And as Nixon could have testified with more authority than most, people fall out of jobs, too. Yet the networkers beat on, résumés against the current, borne back ceaselessly into a succession of hotel reception rooms for one endless professional meeting after another. Is there any reason for the rest of us to care?

III

I venture to answer this question on two grounds: first, I am a solitary, which means that networking is not for me; second, as I mentioned earlier, I have no profession, which means that even if I tried to network in disregard of my inclinations the effort would be pointless, since networking is the province of professionals. In the bleachers I entertain the pretensions to detachment sometimes granted to anchorites and other varieties of the socially impaired.

I maintain that networking perpetuates throughout our society certain attitudes that are out of keeping with present circumstances, no matter how natural and appropriate those attitudes may have seemed in the distant past. More than two hundred years ago Benjamin Franklin distilled the utilitarian view of life into words we should try to forget: “Leisure is time for doing something useful.” Indeed. A more concise, explicit rejection of leisure would be difficult to compose, and this one-liner must have done much in Franklin’s day to establish his reputation for aphoristic wisdom among the many who echoed his professed zeal for work. But in addition to being salty and readily repeatable, which are virtues to be expected of any apothegm, this one radiated decisive influence. For in colonial times the truth of it must have seemed self-evident without risk of also seeming trite. With an entire continent awaiting exploration and settlement, would anyone refuse to be up and doing night and day?

No one would, and no one did, except for the unregenerate Henry David Thoreau. Franklin’s utilitarianism had been the fashion for a century or more when Thoreau countered with the plea: “Work, work, work. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once.” But in his day no such glory ever descended. Nor did the value he attributed to leisure impress his contemporaries, much less lead to the consecration of an enduring constituency that would stand for the freedom to limit one’s labor and against the prevailing exaltation of career. Thanks to Franklin and his Puritan forebears, we remain utilitarians through and through, stead-fast in our devotion to the Gospel of Work. In her incisive book, The Overworked American, Juliet Schor argues that in the late 20th century our brand of capitalism has arrived at an accommodation that appears to be distinctively American. Labor now joins management in favoring consumption, paid for by long hours, as “the alternative to taking economic progress in the form of leisure.”

Consumption might possibly prove an intelligible choice (whether desirable is another question) if there were enough long hours to go around. But there aren’t, not for networkers, at any rate, and everybody knows it. Consider Robert N. Bellah & Co. About ten years ago, on page 26 of Habits of the Heart, they declared it “painfully apparent” that “there are more qualified applicants than openings for the interesting jobs. . . .” But they plunged ahead and wrote their book anyway, so irresistible was the thrust of academic momentum. Our most conspicuous networker and careerist-in-chief, President Bill Clinton, has acknowledged that for many of the laid-off, including the highly trained, the supply of jobs will disappoint demand, and as a lifelong job-seeker I can attest that work for the merely educated, for those who might be termed sub-professionals, is hard to come by.(The totally uncredentialed face difficulties all their own, but I cannot speak for them.) Yet networking reinforces the utilitarian delusion that regular, full-time, paid employment is and ought to be the norm, that to get it all you really need is hustle. This attitude cannot be reconciled with the facts. What to do?

The most promising course, so it seems to me, would be to refrain from asking too much. In particular it would be idle (you should pardon the expression) to thump the drum for leisure, as if Thoreau had been right but should have drummed harder. Rightly understood, leisure is an aristocratic notion that comes down to us from classical times. It has no natural place in a mass, egalitarian democracy and might better be left alone. As for professional, this label seems likely to retain its popularity, just as networkers will press on until the last résumé has detumesced. Yet I see no reason to assume without testing the waters that the utilitarian is the only outlook we will ever permit ourselves. What I propose as a supplement, but also as more than a token antidote, is the habit of mind I have come to think of as notworking.

Of course in a certain sense we already know what notworking is. It’s what the landlord says when demanding more front money: “You’re notworking.” It’s what the tenant says when asking for more time to pay the rent: “I’m notworking.” But there can be more to notworking than a perilous passage on the first of every month. If Mr. Franklin’s shade will indulge me, I make bold to expand the original maxim: Notworking is time for doing something enjoyable. Not something costly, since most notworkers are strapped or soon will be. Just something that refreshes, something that gives pleasure and it might very well cost little or nothing. It might also require sustained, exacting work, as in learning to draw or to saw a straight line. Because notworkers have no jobs, they have no time off, yet somehow must break up the day. What means more reliable than pleasure? If over the long run we were to succeed in connecting the condition called notworking with the expectation of pleasure we would do more than relieve the notworker’s day. We might eventually purge ourselves of the superstition that to have dignity and value work has to be paid for. Thus disabused, we could extend the amateur ideal beyond the realm of athletics to regions where it may have been rumored but is still unknown.

Years ago when I lived in the Village I used to patronize Heller’s Liquor Store on Greenwich Avenue (infrequently, of course) where together with the other customers I would take comfort from the sign behind the counter: “It’s ruined a few here and there, but it’s saved the lives of millions.” The drys have since recovered the field, and they’re welcome to it, I suppose. But to promote the new-found cause we might at least salvage Heller’s motto, and the short form, Notworking Saves.

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