Problematizing Authenticity as a Vocational Ideal

The notion of authenticity is a central element of modern western culture. This idea supposes that persons ought to be true to themselves. When the notion is applied to the entire life of a person it is difficult to argue with as almost no one would argue with the idea that people ought to be true to themselves and live a life that reflects their particularity or uniqueness. But when the notion of authenticity is transformed into a vocational ideal it becomes problematic. Authenticity as a vocational ideal is the notion that a person’s career should be something that expresses their particular nature and thus something that the person finds deeply meaningful and fulfilling. With this notion of authenticity, a successful career would be doing something that reflects your particularity and that you find great fulfillment in. I will refer to this notion of authenticity as “careerist authenticity”, while I will refer to the more general notion of authenticity, as authenticity simpliciter.

The problem with careerist authenticity can be seen from two sides: from the perspective of people trying to choose a career, and for employers who are hiring people. I will look at each side in turn, and note that from the side of the person trying to develop a career, careerist authenticity often fosters anxiety and malaise as people realize that a career that would be authentic from the standpoint of careerist authenticity would not be one they would be willing to pursue because it would involve endangering their survival, stability or comfort. From the perspective of the employer, careerist authenticity becomes problematic, precisely because many people end up choosing comfort, stability and survival over careerist authenticity. Thus, employers who buy into careerist authenticity screen out people who are willing to work, because they feel that if a person is choosing a job for wealth, stability or comfort, they will do a poor job. This itself creates an additional problem in which people are encouraged to present themselves as someone who will find fulfillment in their career, even when they will not, as many employers want employees who view their career in terms of careerist authenticity.

I noted earlier that for those choosing a career the notion of careerist authenticity can foster anxiety, and a certain malaise. The notion of careerist authenticity has this effect because if someone buys into this concept than unless one is very lucky and finds a job that pays reasonably well that embodies one’s calling and allows one to find fulfillment in it, one will be very disappointed and anxious because of the fact that achieving survival and comfort will mean choosing less meaningful work. Let us take a look at an example. Someone realizes that their most authentic calling is writing music. This person would write music if they could for a living, but they realize that they have little chance of being able to support themselves through writing music as a career, and thus they realize they must find a job to ensure their survival and comfort. Or they could try to pursue writing music as a career, understanding that they may fail and be impoverished because of it. A plausible reaction to this situation is anxiety over the fact that one will not be able to do what one finds most meaningful to survive, but rather will have to do something one is less drawn towards. Some may view this anxiety as childish, but I think this construal fails to account for the problem. These people want to contribute to society through pursuing a career that is an expression of their authentic calling; they are not simply people who do not want to work in the “real world.” Rather, the “real world” makes it impossible for them to devote themselves fully to their authentic calling without endangering their comfort and survival.

This anxiety however is reinforced and made more intense, by the tendency for parents and educators to stress the careerist authenticity view of life. As a result of this many youths tend to unwittingly adopt the careerist authenticity view because that is how they have been taught to understand their career and their life. Furthermore this anxiety is also intensified by the affluence of western societies. Much western youth never experience impoverishment, and thus they tend to forget that the primary purpose of work is to achieve survival and enough wealth for comfort. Similarly, one additional thing that intensifies this anxiety is the fact that the modern age is founded upon the conquest of nature. Consequently people have a sense of hubris and feel that humans are perfectly entitled to remake the world to suit their pleasure. Therefore, the fact that the world fails to allow people to fully devote themselves to their most authentic calling, is much more upsetting than it would be for someone with a more premodern understanding of society in which society reflects nature, and society cannot be constructed in whatever way to suit whatever human desire. Although the notion of a career itself a modern invention, so this comparison itself is perhaps not that adept.

On the side of the employer looking to hire someone, if the employer understands careers in the terms of careerist authenticity they will only look to hire people who fit with a particular position in terms of careerist authenticity. That is they will only look to hire people whose authentic calling is to work in a particular position. This is problematic from the standpoint of modern standards of business efficiency itself, because many people who would be good workers are screened out because of factors that are completely arbitrary with regard to business efficiency itself. It is true that if someone has a career that fits with careerist authenticity they will likely do their job better than someone who has a career that does not because they find their vocation deeply fulfilling, but still there are still many people who would do a good job in a particular position, even if the career is not an ideal position for them according to careerist authenticity. So, from the standpoint of business efficiency itself careerist authenticity is problematic. Furthermore, this attitude is problematic for employers to have because it encourages dishonesty in workers as they must sell themselves not simply as people who will do their job well, but who will find meaning in their job and people who are “passionate” about their job. This encouragement of dishonesty can develop into a habit and corrupt people, because habituation in vice encourages further vice, as habituation in virtue develops virtue. Not to mention the fact that this need to play the role of the passionate worker further alienates the worker.

So, given all this criticism of the notion of careerist authenticity, what is the best way to counteract this problem? The answer is unclear to me. There are many possible ways to radically alter the economy such that meaningful work can be separated from the pursuit of the means to life and people do not have to face the agonistic choice between meaningful work and survival through work that is understood by the worker as a mere means to survival. However, I do not have the space, nor do I have the expertise to get into this issue.

One other possible solution is accepting that the advantages of a bourgeois commercial society of jobholders, have certain costs, and one of those costs is that we will have to face the agonistic choice. Related to this solution is trying to encourage a shift in the modern culture away from understanding careers in the warm fuzzy terms of careerist authenticity, and ensuring that employees and employers understand that the careerist authenticity is problematic, and that it is better to be honest that careers are primarily a means to survival and comfort, rather than something that represents one’s authentic vocation or calling.

However, the solution that I have just proposed is problematic as careerist authenticity itself is reinforced by the imperatives of capitalism, in that firms and employers wish to sell themselves to possible employees as firms that will provide people with careers that fit with the terms of careerist authenticity itself. This is not to suggest some orthodox Marxist notion that the relations of production determine ideas and culture, but rather more modestly that productive relations will reinforce certain ideas and certain cultural forms. Consequently, it seems that careerist authenticity is here to stay, at least for the mean time, and will remain a part of the culture of the modern west, until some fundamental changes occur.

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One thought on “Problematizing Authenticity as a Vocational Ideal

  1. Pingback: Problematizing the Pursuit of Career Success: Vice, Virtue and Post-Industrial Culture | jmeqvist

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