notes on a book I'll probably never write
I think you're right, obviously, that not all people have email jobs, but I also think it's astounding how much our culture *assumes* everyone has an email job. This was most obvious, and polarizing, in the discussion around remote work during Covid ("why can't everyone just stay home??") but also - nothing is open outside of work hours. If you need to talk to your insurance company, or your bank, or a lawyer; if you need to visit a government office or sort out your taxes - our culture just seems to assume that at least one spouse in every family can take a pointless phone call for half an hour every few days. It's another hidden tax on the poor - I think if both parents work on an assembly line or something they must just have to take their lumps with whatever the insurance company rejects or denies, because they're just not able to spend 45 minutes on hold while door panels come down the assembly line.
The concept of the email job helps me anchor a culturally unacceptable question that bugs me: why do women (and women seem to many/most? of these jobs) prioritize these kinds of jobs over staying home with children? I understand why someone with a burning passion for her work as a lawyer or doctor or rocket scientist really values the work and the intellectual challenge. And of course I understand that there are financial challenges for many: single mothers and breadwinners and caretakers of elderly parents and minimum wage earners etc cannot choose staying home over work. But many women working email jobs DO seem to derive their identity from *having* a job, even if the job itself is less satisfying than the alternative. As if sending emails and organizing calendars and attending meetings is somehow sticking it to the patriarchy.
I have an email job, which is why I decided putz a little, read this, and start working half an hour late today. There's some unavoidable ennui that comes with these jobs, but all in all, it could be a heck of a lot worse.
Yes. Absolutely. And a possibly trivial, but I think critical, point for the quality of life of people who hold these jobs: knowing how to type well. Like truly well. In our organization we have a cohort of people aged 35-50 who learned how to type in school and can type blind faster than they can talk. And what an advantage that is! By contrast, my 19 year old daughter and her friends were forced to spend high school pecking on iPads and are now at a huge disadvantage compared to those with *real* typing skills. And ironically, as more people make a living typing, the old typing schools are all gone, at least in NYC. So again, this may seem trivial if you can copy a book without looking at a keyboard, but it’s huge for those who can’t.
I think in many ways I have an email job, and it’s really lovely. Great colleagues, on a university campus, incredible flexibility, and bandwidth at the end of the work day to do my own creative stuff. No complaints. Much happier in this situation than I think I would be either struggling to support myself in a purely creative fashion or working super hard to make a ton of money.
Many of my friends who desperately sought to make it in creative work in the city in their 20s are now in email jobs. The transition was an identity crisis for a lot of them - but the steady salary, time off on the weekends, and financial wiggle room speak for themselves. The biggest tragedy is that two $70,000 email jobs in one household still only get you a one-bedroom apartment and nowhere near a down payment, so eventually I imagine they'll move to gentrifying neighborhoods on the outskirts of the cities they grew up in, with houses they picked because there was room for a home office inside.
There's a feeling among some of them, I think, that this is embarrassingly typical, kind of like selling out. I appreciate you articulating all the reasons it isn't. Email jobs will allow millennials in their 30s to have kids, if they want them; I hope they will allow us to start to build a culture where your job and your artistic passion don't have to be the same thing for your passion to be meaningful.
"Are staffed almost entirely by people with college degrees, but while they do take advantage of time management and organizational skills that can be developed in college, almost never call on domain-specific knowledge related to a particular major"
This is how you know most college jobs are bullshit. If it doesn't matter if your degree was in linguistics or business how relevant is college course material to the job?
The kind of skills required for an email job aren't unique or particularly hard to acquire, but enough people either can't acquire them, or won't, that you can often stand out from the competition and hold down a good job for decades with nothing more than showing up on time, a little follow-through, doing what you said you'd do, and (this is key) a willingness to suck it up. I do all these things, and my life is quite drab but -- so far, knock on wood -- blessedly predictable.
Some family members hold my way of life in open contempt, preferring to stay creative and not tie themselves down. They have a much higher risk tolerance than I do, that's all, and apparently a much lower boredom threshold as well. Perhaps we'll all be all right, and perhaps none of us will.
My wife has an email job. It allowed her to work from home during Covid, is unionized with great benefits, and her boss is a wonderful woman who encouraged her into training so that one day my wife can take over a new position: another email job. My wife tries to explain her job to me sometimes, but with all the obscure government jargon and acronyms I have a hard time following along. There is a lot of Excel spreadsheets, and a lot of phone calls and meetings. I don’t think an email job would be for me, but my wife is great at it, and has moved up quickly in her short time there. She’s also a thousand times happier than she was in her last job. Not everyone is suited to these types of jobs, as it is easy for people to coast and not participate from what I glean from the office chatter I overhear when my wife is working from home, but a world of email jobs seems a pretty fine one to me.
Doctors, teachers, plumbers. They can all choose to make their activities ironic, but if I ask someone "What did you do today?" and they respond, "I operated on a tumor," or "I worked with my students on French pronunciation," or "I fixed a water main break downtown," we all have some picture of what that activity might be like, and it doesn't sound like they're being self-effacing or joking.
If the answer is some variation of, "First I went through 157 emails to see which ones I needed to respond to right away, which ones I could put off responding to, and which I could delete, then I had back-to-back-back Teams meetings to discuss where we are in processing the most recent round of APP-Failed Salesforce cases, and then I sent our marketing department this excel doc they requested. And that was all before lunch!" etc... ect...
The definition of an e-mail job: one where any possible answer to the question "What did you do today?" is going to sound somehow ironic.
Coordination is a legitimate problem. If you have a project for one engineer, you hire one engineer and it gets done. If you have a project for ten engineers, perhaps you can hire the mythical "10x engineer" and it gets done. If you have a project for one hundred engineers, you cannot just hire 100 engineers and expect anything useful to happen.
At minimum they will require internal coordination. Any legitimately 100-engineer-scale project will also have a substantial blast radius on the real world, which means socializing and convincing and negotiating with a lot of stakeholders to accept those impacts. And finally, whoever is signing checks for 100 engineers (have you seen what we cost?) will want regular assurances that they are making progress against a viable plan. Hence, email jobs.
One of the astounding facets of musical institutionalization in the US is in the way that music performance degrees are positioned relative to the reality of industry employment, and how e-mail jobs factor into this.
Many high schoolers are convinced to pursue music as a degree because of how much they enjoyed their grade school hobby, only to find out that they aren’t cut out for the rigor of what it takes to be a successful career performer. They usually burn out, our take the education track (which creates an institutional feedback cycle, while also providing the ostensible cultural trappings that society can enjoy).
Meanwhile, the performers that are cut out for a career often realize that day jobs, ideally e-mail jobs, are the bread and butter of their survival anyway due to the structure of the music industry at-large. There are other factors at play like performance genre scene, business and production decisions that affect what performers are needed or need to do, etc. But as far as academic performance tracks go - classical cats come to terms with either being stuck in academia with little to no relevant outlet for their skills beyond the rare civic ensemble gig, competing within their own niche social class for relevance while being propped up by aristocratic patronage and competitions, or going military. Jazz cats realize they’ve literally got to know how to do it all to fit into the industry at large, they’ve got to be a modern bard/troubadour, otherwise they’re gonna have no work. Academic performance training simply does not track onto established infrastructure, excepting military, and unless you picked up relevant and functional social skills you’re SOL in the job market for applying domain-specific skills.
E-mail jobs provide a cushion that performers need to have the stability and flexibility to work our career development. Getting a foot stuck into an “e-mail” job that’s industry relevant can happen (working for a nonprofit, maybe for a local academic or cultural music institution), but it’s far less common than finding something non-musical to pay the bills. The common track for undergraduate or masters+ students who don’t go education is to simply find a different career than the one they “studied” for to support their end goals, or to simply drop the facade and switch industries entirely.
While I do agree that there are some jobs that are entirely, or almost entirely, email jobs, I think it's also a useful concept to think of the percentage of your job that is characterized by email-job-ness. So maybe >90% email-job-ness is labeled as an "email job", but I'm guessing almost all knowledge workers have at least 25% of email-job-ness duties. For example, doctors have to update charts, and a lot also end up having small-business admin duties (or, increasingly, middle manager admin duties, as small private practices disappear). And we all have to go through those damn ass-covering corporate trainings.
Also, I know Freddie isn't advocating this idea, just mentioning that most people think this way, but I've always thought that the supposed link that goes directly from undergrad degree to job is mostly wrongheaded, both from a theoretical perspective and from a practical perspective. On the theoretical side, having students major in a field, (almost) any field, ideally pushes them to go deep into that subject, and that experience of having a depth of knowledge in a field helps to shape how one thinks about the world. The subject matter might matter somewhat, but that kind of depth of thought, thinking about the ways of knowing in your discipline, asking the kinds of fundamental questions that you can only ask when you know a lot about a subject, those are what is valuable about having a major, any major.
On the practical side, people have been getting jobs outside of supposedly "correct" track for their majors since majors were invented. A smart person who knows how to teach themselves new things can thrive in all but the most specialized jobs (and almost all of those, like medicine and law, are closed based on cartel-like licensing requirements). I now work in tech, but I love seeing applicants that have tech capabilities but who studied in non-tech fields; they have proven to be an asset. I can see that well since I double majored in English and history, and now I work as a data scientist. But rather than thinking that my majors were wasted time for what my job ended up being, I've found that the habits of mind I developed have been enormously useful. Years of close reading poetry, seeing how all the small pieces result in the meaning of the whole poem, helps me pay attention to the details and put them into a larger context while debugging stack traces. The mental muscles I built thinking about how narratives are structured, or how causation works in history, help me design software architecture that is robust while being flexible enough to add new components. To paraphrase Steve Martin, I majored in English and history (and minored in classics, and took classes in astronomy and music theory and psych and anthropology and logic and stats (and managed never to take a formal computer science class!)), and I have used all of it in my career.
Weird that the stigma's there: as I read this I was relieved to find first that, since my job definitely produces something, I don't fully fit the description of an email job and second, much of that production's creative so I'm actually in a cool, non-email job. Why do I care, when I'm a middle-aged man only working to clear a mortgage? But it's still something we derive self-worth from.
Question for everyone reading and replying: how many of you are doing this from your work computer during your working hours? I bet most of us.
My current job is a pleasing mixture of email job and regular job, in a middle school dean's office.
I have been largely successful at work by establishing the persona of a guy willing to speedrun through the email chain-touching base-knock out this online training-action plan meeting side of things in order to focus on the nuts and bolts of the actual job of meeting with kids face to face and providing them with positive reinforcement.
My admin bosses are aware I find their world of high intensity/low impact meetings and crafting official guidance memos and using the right dialect to describe normal interactions to be silly and incomprehensible, but I make their lives easier across a broad spectrum of tasks so my cheerful "The inane bullshit guidance that district is pushing down to us is wishful thinking and documenting every single interaction with kids and their parents while I put it into effect is a pointless time sink, but if it helps flip slides from red to green, then fuck it I get paid the same" attitude is tolerated.
I am not sure why not needing to call on domain-specific knowledge related to one's major field of study is a qualifier for am email job. For example, someone who majored in Grievance Studies in college and is now Diversity Coordinator for some enterprise or institution would otherwise qualify for FdB's definition of an email job.