Chavez: You Are More Than the Money You Make


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By Paij Chavez, Opinion Writer

It’s fair to assume that most college students are in college because they hope to better their lives in some way. Curiosity and a general thirst for knowledge fuel many, but the goal of being successful is almost constant. There’s plenty of debate over what constitutes success and it is very common to hear the adage “money can’t buy you happiness.” Despite this sentiment, money is a powerful factor within every American’s life. 

The glorification of busyness runs deep within our modern culture. Constant productivity is seen as the optimal lifestyle, and we correlate productivity to maximizing income and, eventually, to measuring self-worth. It’s completely socially acceptable to hear someone say they work 60, 70 or 80 hour work weeks because this is seen as ambitious, not detrimental.

College students are especially fixated on staying busy ⁠— and earning potential ⁠— because of the cultural pressure to secure a career path that allows them to enjoy a high standard of living, or at least one similar to what they were raised with. Education is not used solely for learning — instead, college is seen as a checkbox on the list of “Things To Do To Make More Money.” For a lot of people, that is their top priority ⁠— because attending college only to get a job with a low salary is often seen as a failure. Many joke or scoff at degrees in the arts or humanities, deeming them “unemployable” and therefore useless. 

Family members, even if speaking from a place of love and concern, can place intense pressure on students to make themselves marketable to the “real world.” They can overlook signs of unhappiness or burnout just so long as other cultural markers of success are achieved. Most importantly, students may subconsciously apply these standards to themselves and measure self-worth based on the incomplete snapshot of a bank account balance and abstract concepts of productivity.

Trying to find self-esteem and worth in anything external only leads people astray. The reason that “money can’t buy you happiness” is said so often is because a lot of wealthy people are miserable despite their success. They haven’t practiced sufficient introspection into who they really are, so once they do reach their desired level of financial success, they feel lost.

Capitalism relies on the willingness of the working class to contribute to the system. If people feel like they will be better if they work harder, then more labor is put into the mode of production. According to Marxist theory, a capitalist economy will always be exploitive because of the hierarchical class structure it creates between a ruling class and working class. There’s overwhelming evidence that exploitation like this exists within the American working class, as well as in countries around the world whose labor and goods are outsourced from American corporations.

Members of a capitalist society are often conditioned to believe unwaveringly that it is the only possible economic system. The desire for wealth seems intrinsic, but much of it is actually constructed and cultivated from an early age. It is not a natural reality, it is an ideology ⁠— and it is certainly not the only way for humans to exist together on Earth.

There are many profound cultural consequences of late capitalism. The prioritization of maximizing profit and ownership practices comes at a cost. It often leads to a reduction in diversity, a restriction of democratic ideals and corporate cultural imperialism. Media conglomerates and corporations within industries like Big Oil and Big Pharma may also wield a powerful influence on domestic policy and legislation.

This a huge political issue for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. He often talks about making the economic system work better for all Americans. Redistribution of wealth, by way of taxing the billionaire class, is crucial to his plan for equality. Even as millions of Americans are working two or three jobs to make ends meet, the top .1% earn 188 times as much as the bottom 90%. Much of the profit coming from the working-class labor is going right into the pockets of CEOs.

If you’re like me, truly understanding how capitalist ideology has controlled most your life as an American citizen will come with an array of emotions. It’s important to feel them all. No one gets to choose where they are born and culture is a sneaky thing. Once you’ve processed the difficult feelings that come with reassessing your motivations and life plan, then you can make your choices with something like informed consent. Do you want to focus your life on profit maximization (often at your own eventual expense,) or something else?

Unfortunately, this can be a catch-22. Once there is an awareness of our conditioning, it is easier to slowly break down why we think and believe what we do. We begin to understand the difference between which values and goals feel correctly aligned for us and which don’t.

Yet, the reality of living within a capitalist economy requires that we must make at least some money to survive, and it can feel strange to critique the system we still wish to thrive within. This gets exponentially more complicated for people with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses or people of color who have historically had their participation in capitalist success limited far more than their abled, white counterparts. There is a clear connection between capitalism and power, especially as it pertains to race. Observing how capitalism really functions and understanding the harm it has caused is a good way to resist hateful ideals. Organizations like The Nap Ministry, based out of Atlanta, is doing powerful work connecting race and rest to create better work environments.

No one can decide the right way to live life for another person, and they especially cannot decide what makes some work “worth it” to another. Navigating the financial demands of work is up to you ⁠— start taking more naps, get a second job. Only you can figure out what works best for you, and it is unlikely that there is only one right way. In the meantime, knowledge is power, and in order to make important life decisions, everyone should understand the environment they are working within. This includes the powerful ways ideology can influence our thoughts, opinions and beliefs about the world, productivity, worth and ourselves.


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