By Alli Whalen · April 22, 2008
Written By: Allison Whalen
What came first, the job or the crisis? With the exception of the very rich, the particularly lucky, or those Bobby Fisher brainiac anomalies, most of us quarter-lifers don’t have much to brag about in the way of job experience. We’ve all done our fair share of empty-headed labour, whether selling over-priced, ill-fitting, cotton garments, dunking frozen potatoes into a grease-spattering tub, or answering a front-desk phone in a peppy, little voice that secretly wants to stab every caller with a sharp pencil. These types of work (and so many more) can be neatly categorized as “McJobs”, a term coined by the godfather of the quarter-life crisis, author Douglas Coupland. In Generation X, his sizzlin’, pink novel that swept multiple nations in the early nineties, Coupland describes the “McJob” as a “…low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.” Sound familiar?
If you haven’t read the book (get on that shit), it follows the lives of three quarter-lifers who have more or less run away from the Real World into the responsibility-less land of Palm Springs, to picnic in abandoned neighbourhoods and to lounge by kidney-shaped pools with nail polish and cappuccino. Not too shabby. Each character lives in respective bungalows and works a part-time McJob, two of them as bartenders and one as a retail counter cutie selling thousand dollar purses to the old ladies who can afford them. The book serves as a mini-escape for the twenty-something reader (especially to a fellow Real World escapee, alone in a dorm room on a cold, winter night in Ontario), as the balmy, surreal setting within the book complements its physical layout, replete with slogans, amusing info-bites, comics and other tasty treats.
It’s a welcome form of entertainment – a grown-up book with pictures! But the best part is that while it was written over fifteen years ago, it still manages to be relatable – so much so that it’s a little scary. How many times have you or I twirled pencils or doodled our names in “veal-fattening pens” – what Coupland calls cubicles – feeling like a wilted piece of lettuce with flickering, fluorescent light bulbs for eyeballs? Alternatively, can’t we also identify with a job serving booze to belligerent barflies or aged lushes who snipe on the young men behind the counters (we call ’em cougars up north)? Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Coupland is criticizing this kind of work, or if he simply sees it as an irritating but necessary rite of passage that can allow for a heady escape from the soulless, nine-to-five-zombie, downward spiral.
Despite Coupland’s potential opinion (which may very well have changed some two decades later), here’s what I’m wondering: IS the McJob a rite of passage that we all must go through in our early twenties, whether it’s a means of getting through University, raising a family, or supporting any number of recreational addictions? Or can we somehow slip through the system, fly through a shimmering loophole, and be able to achieve some sort of satisfaction in our work, conveniently skipping the grease burns, veal-fattening pens, door-to-door knife selling (as Jerry Seinfeld says, “I need a knife that can cut through a shoe!”), etc.?
My answer to this is, well, I’m not really sure. The grinder in me tends to buck up and lean towards the “It builds character!” side of the fence when I think about how much I learned about interpersonal communication and customer service, not to mention a worldly knowledge of leather, fleece, and the dollar bills folks will shell out for Olympic gear (I had a McJob in a Canadian goods store that sold official Olympic gear. It also had its own radio station that would not only play the same garbage songs every single day, but would also shock us employees with a faceless, deep-voiced announcer who would pipe up every eight songs and say things like “We’re warming you up like a hot cup o’ chocolate!” in the middle of July). I may have gained blisters and grudges, but working with the public really taught me to deal with people – the good, the bad, and the ugly. In my case, the ugly was an angry lady who threw a housecoat at us cashiers on Boxing Day. Fun stuff. The “…but you’ll never take my freedom!” side of me, however, is still gritting her teeth over the time a boss came to my office McJob with a pile of sticky objects and a tube of Goo-Gone, asking me to see what I could do. Those humiliating moments are tough on the quarter-lifer’s soul, as we pick at linty glue with our nails, realizing that no one in HR cares that we earned an A+ on our American Lit paper last year, or even that we can walk around without crashing into things or breathe with our mouths closed. So, I ask you: do we need these McJobs to get us through our quarter-life crises, or do they only add to them?