Vicarious Leisure

I was having an interesting conversation yesterday with a friend while discussing the proposition of finding someone from among the foreigners we know in Korea to fill an open position at my company.  As we went over the various people we know, evaluating their Korean language skills, other qualifications, where they are in their careers and whether they would be interested in a job in the field in question, we managed to narrow down the field to a small number of individuals, and yet with seemingly all the appropriate candidates we repeatedly found the same problem.  None of those most suited to the job appeared to be particularly motivated to start careers.  In most cases, the people we dismissed for this reason were currently occupied as dabblers.  They came to Korea without any particular aim, and although they may have learned Korean here or known it already, for the most part they learned it without any particular career goal in mind.  A few of the most qualified candidates were not interested in working at all, while others among them were not ready to decide what field they wanted to enter.  I should mention that the people we were discussing are all current students at or recent graduates of Yonsei GSIS, and the many of the ones who came up in our discussion were concentrating in trade and finance or management.

We were having a hard time explaining why this would be.  Why would so many people who had taken their education to this level nonetheless be unprepared to begin their careers?  What are they studying for, if not to help their job prospects?

I brought up, as I often do, leisure studies.  Here’s an abridged excerpt from Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class that I’d had in mind:

The great, pervading human relation in such a system is that of master and servant.  The accepted evidence of wealth is the possession of many women, and presently also of other slaves [i.e. servants] engaged in attendance of their master’s person and in producing goods for him. . . At the same time those servants whose office is personal service, including  domestic duties, come gradually to be exempted from productive industry carried on for gain. . . This process of progressive exemption from the common run of industrial employment will commonly begin with the exemption of the wife, or the chief wife. . . By virtue of their serving as evidence of the ability to pay, the office of such domestics regularly tends to include continually fewer duties, and their service tends in the end to become nominal only. . . [T]here arises a subsidiary or derivative leisure class, whose office is the performance of a vicarious leisure for the behoof of the reputability of the primary or legitimate leisure class. . . his leisure normally passes under the guise of specialized service directed to the furtherance of the master’s fullness of life.

Compare this to a recent entry in the Stuff White People Like blog on picking fruit:

Many of you might be familiar with the process of harvesting a crop, some of its more intense variations are often referred to as “migrant labor” and “slavery.” Under these conditions, laborers are expected to work extremely hard in order to live up to large expectations about their fruit picking output.

When white people harvests a crop it’s known as “berry picking” or “pick your own fruit.”  Under these conditions, white people are expected to work leisurely with no real expectations and then they pay for the privilege to do so. In other words, berry picking is the agricultural equivalent to a private liberal arts college. It’s no surprise white people like it, because much like a liberal arts degree it feels like you’ve done real work when you really haven’t.

Based on the same line of reasoning, I argued to my friend that those students that we know who have no intention of finding gainful employment in the near future and particularly those who lack even an idea about how to do so should be viewed as luxury accessories (derivative leisure class) of their parents (legitimate leisure class).  In this way, I would say that raising one’s children in the suburbs, away from where gainful employment is performed and money is actually made, often turns the sheltered suburban child into a human status marker for the parent.  Among US baby boomers in particular, where there sometimes seems to be a marked lack of concern for one’s children’s economic success, and any higher education is anachronistically viewed as a gateway to one or another form of success, this appears to be the rule rather than the exception.

Of course this doesn’t hold true in every case, but then again if it did you’d probably already have noticed it and I wouldn’t need to write this, would I?

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~ by Joe on March 18, 2010.

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