“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“That’s interesting. So, what do you write about?”
There’s this bewildered look that lingers on his face as the conversation continues. He must be thinking, “Really? That’s a job?”
Well, it’s as much a job as any other title that I can barely pronounce or comprehend. But, yes, it is unusual to make a living as a writer these days. It never was a glamorous, illustrious or lucrative profession. And, unfortunately, it continues to be that way.
Is it something I can do for the rest of my life and sustain a family? I don’t know. It’s possible but it requires endless hours of writing and some downright good luck — right place, right time kind of charm.
But is it something that I love to do? Absolutely.
So, the other day, I asked a local senior in high school, what would she like to do in life or before that, study in college. I got a blank stare for a moment. Then, she uttered quietly, “business.” Why, I asked her. “Do you want to be an entrepreneur, start your own company? That would be exciting.” I love entrepreneurs.
But, her response caught me by surprise. “No, it’s just something I have to do to make money.” So, I pried a bit further. “Is there something about business that intrigues you?” I got another moment of silence. “No, not really. I just figured it would be the easiest way to make money after college.”
Yes, we all have to make money. That’s the unfortunate reality. But, to think that this young woman would pursue a degree because of convenience saddened me. College has been designed as a time to nurture your passions. If entrepreneurship were a passion, by all means go for it! We can always use more entrepreneurs.
But my conversation with this senior is not groundbreaking. I’ve seen, heard and met countless other young people who have chosen professions because of the salaries attached to them. Who hasn’t?
Yet, what’s always stumped me is the serious disparity between the professions that impact people’s lives in profound ways and the compensation those workers receive. Think teachers, elderly care, social workers, cooks. Even some professions that don’t have an immediate social impact but require a skill, a craftsmanship and a mastery of art are often underpaid for their talent.
Put yourself in the shoes of a baker who would spend his nights in front of a hot oven, shaping endless rows of baguettes and boules — so that you can have a fresh loaf of bread in the morning.
Today, machines make our breads. And, well, that comes through in the taste. They lack the beauty, rusticity and taste of handmade bread made with three ingredients (water, flour and yeast), not 20.
But imagine how much that baker gets paid for feeding you well. Does he not work hard? Sure he does. But why so little compensation?
Then there’s the obvious professions that pay little but have strong social impact. Think teachers. The debate about their compensation has been going on for years, if not decades. Recent coverage of the education system in Finland by the American press has brought the issue to the forefront again.
While Finnish society invests in their teachers, financially and otherwise, we’ve made teaching a low-paid profession. And the results are not pretty. Ask any young, ambitious student what he or she would like to do after college. Teaching is not high on the list.
Certainly not teaching at the local high school or elementary level. Why? Is it not a prestigious profession anymore? Perhaps not.
Why can we not redistribute salaries? Why can we not make them more equal? Why is it that one person must make 15 times the other? Is his work really of that much more value to society? Why can we not offer more professional options to graduating seniors in colleges, options that sing of passion, social impact and creativity?
When I was graduating from undergrad and grad school, I was presented with three options — banking, consulting or unemployed. I chose the last one. The career fairs were saturated with banks and consulting firms.
I remember telling a college career counselor that I’m interested in journalism, writing, storytelling. And she gave me a booklet on public relations. I told her that wasn’t quite what I had in mind. But she said to me, “PR at one of the big firms will pay more.”
I walked out of the office empty-handed. I struggled for years to get my first piece of writing published. I worked with nonprofits, small businesses and startups to make money on the side. But, I didn’t care about the money.
I wanted to do something that allured me every day. And I found out, that’s ridiculously hard to do in life. And that’s why, if you ever reach that stage, you’re insanely lucky.
But we should try, shouldn’t we? And can we not make it easier for others to do what they love by sharing our salaries in a more equitable manner?