Interview: Kate McFarland On Anti-Careerism

We are pleased that Kate McFarland took some time to answer questions for us about anti-careerism. An anti-careerist herself, McFarland studied philosophy at Ohio State University and is known for her work in the Basic Income community.

Jennifer Lawson: You’ve recently stated on Facebook, Patreon and other places that you are interested in taking your life in a new direction. You’ve indicated this direction is one of anti-careerism. Could you tell me more about anti-careerism? What does it entail?
Kate McFarland: I’ve never found it necessary to structure my life around the pursuit of any career path. The goal merely to make sure that my basic needs are satisfied and otherwise to pursue what interests and engages me at the time. I don’t have an “occupational identity” and don’t feel this as a personal deficiency. There’s a famous passage in The German Ideology in which Marx says, in describing the communist utopia, “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity” and thus can “do one thing today and another tomorrow, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” That’s almost a perfect expression of the idea.
Of course, given that “career” implies a full-time paid employment rather than just any area of specialization, anti-careerism more specifically–and perhaps even more significantly–rejects the notion that we’re defined and valued by our contributions to the GDP. It also rejects the idea the success is measured by professional promotions and raises.
“Anti-careerism” refers to a negative stance, a rejection of a certain way of thinking. In this rejection, however, lies an enormous potential to explore ways of life beyond the 9-to-5 grind, to find paths to happiness, fulfillment, and well-being outside the cycle of working, earning, and spending, and to strive for self-development without regard for employability, marketability, and economic productivity. It can free us to become less competitive and less materialistic, and to lead lives of greater leisure and less stress. It opens us to focus on questions like “What can I do for the world?” or “How can I become the best person I can be?” rather than “What can I do that people will pay me to do?”
Anti-careerism per se is not a new direction for my life. It is the way in which I’ve always lived according to my natural inclinations. What I hope now to do is concentrate more on anti-careerist advocacy, if you will. Although many might prefer the stability of a normal career, I believe that the anti-careerist lifestyle should be legitimized and that, moreover, more individuals should have the economic and educational empowerment to adopt it if they so choose. Indeed, there are already ecological imperatives to find meaning outside of the produce-and-consume cycle, and the changing nature of work might already be dismantling the model of full-time permanent employment in a single career. Many people might find “alternative lifestyles” forced upon them, and I think that we anti-careerists might serve as beacons or role models to reveal their potential in a positive light.
Going forth, then, my goal is to promote discussion of the lifestyle as legitimate option and, simultaneously, critique the standard normative expectation that adults stay in full-time paid employment from college graduation to retirement age. As part of this, I believe it is essential to encourage critical discussion of policy reforms that might facilitate such “alternative” lifestyles–such as universal basic income and universal basic services, working time reduction with overtime paid in “comp time” instead of money, policies to allow job-sharing, and livelong education and development opportunities that are truly about learning rather than job training.
I think that the separation of income from work is one crucial demand; thus, I originally sought support and solidarity in the basic income movement. As it turns out, the basic income movement as a whole is quite culturally conservative, especially in the US, and so I am breaking away from that to do this.
On a more personal front, though, I will also say that I am indeed striving also to live closer in accordance with my own values as an anti-careerist. For instance, I am working on overcoming the incessant need for busyness for its own sake, which fueled my early volunteer work for Basic Income News, and focusing on deeper sources joy and satisfaction beyond the superficial sense of accomplishment in feeling busy. Also, when deciding where to focus my time and efforts, I strive to banish vague worries about future employability even further from my mind. In the past, as a professional student or when looking for volunteer opportunities, I was certainly not motivated directly by the pursuit of any specific job or career path; however, there was always a voice in the back of my head that told that I should focus on gaining experience and improving skills that I could monetize if I became desperate. The led me to focus on intellectual and administrative work while neglecting other potentially rewarding forms of self-development. Now, for example, I intend to make an effort at serious training in dance, once I find the right instructors, despite the fact that it’s not realistic for someone of my age ever to become a professional dancer (even if I wanted to).
Jennifer Lawson: As a person with a disability who has been on SSI, I’m often asked “What do you do?” In fact, when I meet people, that’s one of the first questions I get asked. We are so immersed in a careerist way of thinking that it seems anyone who doesn’t have an official career isn’t even a ‘fit’ person. How have you dealt with these issues?
Kate McFarland: That’s a crucial point, and it’s a useful exercise for everyone to pay attention to ways in which careerist thinking pervades the assumptions that we bring even to the most routine small talk situations.
When it comes to responding, I still struggle with this myself, especially in social situations, and perhaps especially when meeting strangers. I always dread “What do you do?” and similar questions. Ideally, these should be teachable moments, times to call out the underlying presupposition that everyone can be expected to an occupational identity. The best response might be to say, “What do I do? You mean how do I sell my labor?” That said, I am really quite shy in person, and I have never garner the courage to test this myself.
The best coping mechanism, I believe, is to find supportive and empathetic friends, even if only through online communities. We will invariably encounter situations in which we feel awkward when asked to talk about “what we do” and meet incredulous stares when we do try to explain. Being able to commiserate with understanding individuals is invaluable. It is also crucial that we practice talking about our lifestyles in positive, affirmative terms. I know my lifestyle is good for me, and what I desire, even though I am typically too shy to tout its virtues to strangers at a reception. It has been incredibly useful for me to talk about my lifestyle in arenas in which I feel like I can be more open and expressive, such as blog posts and interviews such as this. It’s not necessary, of course, to start in a public forum. One might begin by relating one’s thoughts about one’s lifestyle to a close friend or even in a diary.
Finally, with regard to small talk settings, it actually helps me to remember that “What do you do?” is really a meddlesome question, one that would seem offensive in other cultures. There is no shame in not wishing to reveal details about what one does with one’s life to a near stranger–whether about paid work, hobbies, or otherwise.
Jennifer Lawson: As our society is currently structured, money is an issue. Since we have nothing like a Basic Income or a socialist economic system, each individual is responsible for generating their own income, usually. How would you advise people who would like to switch paths and become anti-careerist on generating some money?
Kate McFarland: Unfortunately, as our society is currently structured, very few people can reasonably expect to live as anti-careerists. That’s why I feel that compelled to talk openly about my lifestyle and encourage others to do the same: perhaps by extolling the virtues of the lifestyle–or simply treating it as a legitimate alternative–we can play some small role in generating a demand for policy reforms to make the anti-careerist lifestyle an option for all. But, unfortunately, we aren’t there. Not everyone can just go out an independently acquire enough money to reject a life in full-time employment. Probably very few can. That’s the harsh reality–and that’s why we should be clamoring for radical systems change.
If a person wants to live as an anti-careerist but can’t afford it, I would still call that person an anti-careerist, and instead of telling them to go find a way to raise money, I would tell them to go find a way to raise hell!
Personally, I attribute my own ability to live as anti-careerist to having some lucky breaks that not all enjoy. Most significantly, I had a full-ride college scholarship for all four years of my undergraduate education, which also paid a living stipend. I lived with my mother for much of that time, and was able to save a lot. Now I have a little more money from an inheritance. Also, and not insignificantly, I have never desired children. I imagine that the lifestyle would be considerably more difficult to maintain, if not impossible, alongside raising a family, which of course generates a need for a higher and more stable income. But, obviously, I can’t simply advise folks to have lucky breaks and not desire children.
I also spent many years using graduate school as a way to make money while also challenging myself intellectually in a demanding and rigorous environment. Many graduate programs in the arts and sciences guarantee all admitted students funding in the form of fellowships or teaching or research associateships. As I write this, the new GOP tax plan, which counts tuition waivers as taxable income, could render the already meager salaries unlivable. At present, though, I do consider graduate school one of the best options to earn money in part to learn, to cultivate one’s own faculties, rather than simply to generate profit–though I know my roseate view of grad school is a minority opinion, and many don’t even have the option to attend.
If I have any financial advice, it’s this: avoid letting your expenses creep up merely as a reaction to having more money. If you receive a raise or bonus, or obtain a higher paying job, don’t think in terms “What can I do with this extra money?” as if the fact that you have a higher disposal income means that you need to find some way to lead a more expensive lifestyle. Instead, just ask yourself what you need to change to make your life more complete and fulfilling. You might find that you don’t really need to satisfy any new material needs, and then you can save the extra money. Don’t save for retirement. Keep it relatively liquid–for you might someday find that what you need to do for yourself is to get away from your current job and do something else. If you accumulate enough of a safety net to take time away from full-time employment, and your job has been draining your soul, quit, and find communities and supportive friends who will reaffirm that there is no shame in the decision.
But the one thing I really can’t underemphasize is that no one should feel at all inadequate if they can’t afford to reject full-time paid employment. The system is to blame, and we must demand systems change!

3 thoughts on “Interview: Kate McFarland On Anti-Careerism”

  1. Bravo!
    As a cancer survivor, former lawyer (hold your applause, right?) and extant multimedia creator, I’ve always felt that the mechanical ‘How do you do?’ was more invasive prying than genuine greeting.
    Lovely article, and not owing to my Russian heritage—my only fave Marx is Groucho.

  2. To J. B. Pravda: I think one can hold an anti-careerist view and not be Marxist per se. We can support a Basic Income, which has proponents from all sides of the political spectrum.

  3. Very nice articulation of anti-careerism. I choose anti-careerism and anti-jobism back in the 1980s. Around 2000, when I was wading into the Internet with an anti-job, pro-freedom stance, promoting UBI, I posted a bunch of quotations from writers who challenged the work ethic as industrial goad. An activist woman friend asked why I hadn’t quoted any women. My reply was that if she could find any woman taking issue with the work/job ethic, I would love to post them. FF to now, and we find Kate McFarland bringing a wonderful illumination to the whole cultural mould of jobs and careers. This is also strong leadership, which sometimes needs no more than to give people permission.

    You might enjoy my millennial project, an associational audio documentary called The World Owes You A Living.

    And my quotations blog, which will include a clip from this interview, with a link of course. Not selling anything, it’s all free.

    All the best. -will be watching for more anti-careerist reports.

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