My job doesn't make me happy

We've got a new baby but I want to make a change

Published June 18, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am having a bit of an existential crisis. I'm 33 and I work in corporate America. I have a good job that I like (sort of) and that pays good money. I've always sat at a desk and worked behind a computer and it is all that I know, really. I feel guilty because I know I should be happy given how many people I know who are unemployed or not making enough money to pay their bills. Despite this, I'm not.

My partner just gave birth to our first child a few weeks ago -- a beautiful, healthy baby boy. Throughout her labor, I watched the nurses and doctors and all the support staff buzzing around and taking care of us. She had a really difficult labor and I was overwhelmed by everyone's compassion and support to me, my wife and our new son.

Insert existential crisis here. I have had this feeling to some extent before, but never as powerful as now. I watched all these people whose job it is to serve others and I was blown away and all I could think was "what the heck am I doing with my life." I sit behind a computer and manage databases, which in a very indirect and distant way helps people, but nothing like I saw the hospital staff doing.

I've thought about going back to school to pursue a career in healthcare -- doing what, I'm not sure. This would require leaving my current job and going into school as I have a bachelor's degree in computer programming. I would start with the prerequisites, then spend several years just getting through the school part. I can't help think that this is selfish -- I should be happy where I am. I volunteer 10 hours a week with various organizations but after watching the birth of my son and then having to come back to my desk job, it doesn't feel like enough anymore. And as dumb and selfish as this may sound, I'm not sure I'm ready (emotionally, mentally and even financially) to start at the bottom of the totem pole and have to work my way up again.

I can take the prereq courses I would need online to get into either medical school or nursing school. However, once those are complete I would have to give up my career completely and start over. I'm not sure that my family can do this financially even though my partner is super supportive emotionally and wants me to do what makes me happy. I don't want a ton of student debt. I guess my head and my heart are in conflict.

I could certainly use your advice.

Best regards,

Existentially Confused

Dear Existentially Confused,

You have a new baby at home. Even though your family is supportive and your wife wants you to be happy, making a big change now would place added strain on the family.

That is the opposite of what you need to do now. You need to place less strain on the family. You also need to place less strain on yourself.

If you had an independent income you could quit. But I assume you're working for the money. If going part-time is an option, please consider it.

But otherwise, if your current arrangements are stable, I would suggest maintaining the status quo for the next year or two as the baby grows into a toddler.

That is the short term.

In the long term, we have lots of things to talk about! There are structural inequities at the heart of your dissatisfaction.

Maybe what you  meant when you said you feel "guilty" about your job was that you feel compassion for all the other people who are being screwed over in this country while you're not being screwed over quite as visibly as they are.

Well, good morning and smell the coffee! Corporate America is not set up to make workers happy. It was set up to make other people happy -- investors and CEOs and people you will never see but who will benefit from your laborious unhappiness.

That is what we celebrate in America; that is what we celebrate when we celebrate wealth. We celebrate a system in which the powerful are legally entitled to exploit and mistreat others so they can become rich. That's what we celebrate! It's not personal. It's business.

Do you really feel guilty for not being happy with your job? You sit behind a desk all day managing databases and that is supposed to make you happy?

No wonder you want a change. Of course you're unhappy at your job!

Long-term, as you suggest, it's time to figure out a way to do work that is important and makes you happy. That doesn't necessarily mean going back to school to become a nurse or doctor. It might first mean rearranging your lifestyle so you don't need to make so much money every month. It might mean consciously challenging the system, which you have so far gone along with.

Because, believe me, the system is not going to gladly give you what you want. You are going to have to fight for it. Whether it is expanded human rights, more free time, economic and social justice, environmental protections, a good education for your child, a safe neighborhood: You are going to have to fight for these things.

This doesn't mean you have to quit your job and camp out at Zuccotti Park (though that wouldn't be such a bad idea if you didn't have the baby). (p.s. apropos of nothing, isn't it cool that Zuccotti Park is on Liberty Street?) It just means don't blame yourself for feeling bad when you're being mistreated by an economic system that is fundamentally set up to mistreat you.

By Cary Tennis

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