August is the dullest month. Offices across the land sit half empty. It’s too hot to do anything outside. There’s nothing good on TV. (Even the Olympics, which ostensibly rescue us from indoor boredom every four Augusts, are largely boring. Dressage?) And so we denizens of the internet attempt to entertain ourselves the only way we know how: by playing stupid hashtag games on Twitter.
Last week’s was even stupider than usual. Social media users employed the hashtag #firstsevenjobs alongside straightforward, unadorned lists of their actual first seven jobs. The hashtag originated with singer-songwriter Marian Call, who told Marketplace, “I like this hashtag because it’s really individual, it’s about each person’s really tiny journey and you get to see thousands of strangers reflecting on that.”
With all due respect to Call, who is probably a wonderful musician, #firstsevenjobs is a very bad hashtag. For one thing, no one can agree on what the hashtag actually is: You’ll get hundreds of results whether you search #firstsevenjobs, #myfirstsevenjobs, #first7jobs, #myfirst7jobs, or #1st7jobs. (For some reason, #my1st7jobs didn’t really catch.) The whole point of a hashtag is that it can be used to organize disparate tweets into a single stream; that doesn’t work if no one can agree on whether numbers ought to be expressed as numerals or words. (This problem afflicts the recently trending #fav7films, too. Perhaps it’s time for Twitter to collectively adopt AP Style rules: Spell out single-digit numbers, but use numerals for numbers 10 and above.)
For another thing, #firstsevenjobs—my preferred, AP-approved rendering—encourages navel-gazing of the most boring variety. Granted, posting on social media is inherently self-indulgent, but this hashtag doesn’t even encourage people to be creative or funny in tooting their own horns. You might learn interesting factoids about celebrities by searching the hashtag—Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda started out operating the slush machine at his aunt’s store! Writer Erik Larson used to wash pig sperm out of laboratory glasses! Actress Kerry Washington worked at The Limited!—but the average Twitter user’s #firstsevenjobs tweet is unlikely to interest anyone beyond his or her mother.
But what really bothers me about #firstsevenjobs is the ideology it reflects. #Firstsevenjobs promotes the ideal, as old as America, of the self-made man who creates his own destiny through hard work. The archetypal #firstsevenjobs tweet begins with a few humble, menial jobs—babysitting, retail work, slush-machine operating—and culminates in glory. Even if the seventh job on the list isn’t anything to write home about, the tweeter’s bio will demonstrate that she has overcome adversity to attain an interesting, lucrative, or high-powered career. “What is compelling about this snapshot of career trajectories is that it, by nature, emphasizes a career as a journey and not necessarily the logical result of a blinkered, do what you love mantra,” writes Adam Chandler in a piece praising the hashtag at the Atlantic. “It also implicitly belies and discourages narratives fashioned by nepotism and privilege.”
It’s true that the hashtag discourages narratives of privilege, but that doesn’t mean those narratives aren’t true! #Firstsevenjobs obscures the extent to which the socioeconomic status we are born into shapes our career potential. In fact, it seems designed to make people feel smug about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, even though their career success probably had more to do with luck than with hard work or determination. #Firstsevenjobs is an optimistic hashtag, but also an unrealistic one.
Social mobility in America has been stagnant for 50 years, even as the gap between rich and poor widens. A 2009 study comparing the U.S. to several Western European nations, Australia, and Canada found that “there is a stronger link between parental education and children’s economic, educational, and socio-emotional outcomes than in any other country investigated.” There are plenty of possible reasons for this—the high cost of college, the frayed social safety net, the death of unions—but the upshot is that the social caste you are born into is more relevant to where you end up than your first seven jobs. A more illustrative hashtag, in my opinion, would be #myparentsjobs, which would reveal the extent to which social status and income potential remain fixed from one generation to the next. (And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that most people’s first seven jobs were humble. The jobs that teenagers and young adults take are almost by definition unskilled jobs, whether they’re rich or poor.)
Allow me to illustrate by listing my first seven jobs: babysitter, tutor, prep cook, library assistant, print syndication assistant, cookbook author assistant, and editorial assistant (at Slate). Some of those sound pretty humble, right? I started as a prep cook! But this list doesn’t tell you that I went to an Ivy League school and graduated without debt, since my parents were able and willing to pay for my tuition. It’s those advantages, for which I am enormously grateful, that let me get a foot in the door in the world of media, take low-paying entry-level jobs, and work my way up to a staff position. Whatever work ethic I honed while plating salads as a teenager had nothing to do with it.
The more we glorify narratives that ostensibly demonstrate successful people’s victory over adversity, the less attention we pay to the political and social structures that keep poor people poor and rich people rich. Everyone’s career is a journey—but in wealth-stratified America, most people’s journeys don’t take them very far from where they started.
Need career advice? Got a problem at work? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.