…tailored up kid in his chucks, stuffing X’s & O’s in his hashtags. Into rap like Saran he ain’t half bad, with a backpack make ya back crack call me ‘bam-bam’. Not the sandman but the same man, who transformed & evolved…”
Lyrics like this echo off the walls at an open mic night in a West Philly event hall. Groups and solo acts come out in droves, attracting the attention of people from all walks of life. For the performers, rap is both art and a reprieve from the monotonous routine of day jobs that leave them wanting greater fulfillment.
This is certainly the case for Leon Williams, a Philadelphia resident who earned his bachelor’s degree in illustration from Marywood University in Scranton, Penn. Since then, he’s been working as a server at Not Your Average Joe’s, an American restaurant chain a few hours south in Bryn Mawr. The lyrics above are his, and when you ask Williams the fateful question everyone gets when they chat with a stranger in a bar–“What do you do?”–his answer might surprise you:
“I’m an illustrator, server, I rap and I teach.”
That “fateful question” is what Roberta Iverson, director of the Masters in Social Policy program at the University of Pennsylvania, might describe as a symptom of a society ruled by the idea of the labor market. She recently wrote about the limitations of this labor-centric mindset, especially in an economy where there are more people but fewer job opportunities. This has caused tension among millennials, sometimes leading to fairly negative consequences, but for Leon Williams fulfillment was found by acting upon his own creativity and embracing the idea of what Duke University professor Kathi Weeks describes as a “post-work” society.
Leon, or Young Lion as he prefers to be called while performing, is a local rapper in South Philadelphia, an adjunct professor at Harcum College and a private illustrator for hire.
“Work is work, it’s something you have to just get through,” Williams said. “And that can be mentally frustrating, like you’re in a rut.”
He has felt this firsthand. For many millennials, finding work after college isn’t what it used to be. University of North Carolina professor Arne Kalleberg notes that even as the economy recovers from the great recession, we are reaching an era where there are simply fewer jobs to go around for more people. Beyond the obvious economic implications of these circumstances, there is a deep psychological effect on young people as well.
Individuals who are unable to find their place in society often search for fulfillment in other ways. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Shepherd Zeldin describes the risk of violence and drug use for individuals searching for fulfillment. A glance at the news indicates the relevance of violence among youth, but data tells an even more harrowing story: As it stands, homicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 15 to 24.
Successful employment–employment in which an individual is both financially secure and psychologically fulfilled–can solve this. That is, assuming fulfilling work can be found. When most hear the phrase “post-work” society, it’s common to think this means a society in which people don’t work at all; it’s actually quite the opposite. The “post-work” society is one in which we adopt new definitions of work. To put this in tangible terms, this would be a society in which practices like community beautification, art and community-building were valued equally alongside the standard labor-market jobs most of us hold.
Similarly, there would be an accepting of multiple “side jobs” along with standard labor-market jobs. What Iverson tries to emphasize is that a post-work society is a “value-add,” quite the opposite of demanding less work.
Williams, the South Philadelphia rapper-server-illustrator, worked as a server for a year before he finally took some time out of his week to make it over to a local recording studio to create his first album. Since then, he’s been frequenting local open mic nights and accompanying his music with illustrations to depict his lyrics.
“People make judgments on face value,” he said. “I wanted to create something with layers, so that to experience my art, you have to physically flip through the layers to understand it.”
Immediately, Williams felt the improvement in his life. “It’s really art therapy, it balances my life out. So many people have things that they love doing, but they don’t actually do anything with it.”
A couple of months later, he got his second big break when he served an administrator from Harcum College at Not Your Average Joe’s. After a brief conversation at the table, Williams was offered the chance to teach a digital photography course at Harcum. Five months later, he is entering his second semester teaching the course with more and more students signing up every day.
“Everyone shines once you find what you’re passionate about. A lot of people have multiple interests and have no idea what they can do with them, what they can get paid for them”.
There are groups who denounce the idea that art or service should be compensated in a comparable way to what is considered traditional employment. Perhaps this is the biggest misconception when thinking about what might become a “post-work society.” According to Weeks, it is not the elimination of “work,” but rather an expansion and broadening of what each of us does to play our part.
For Williams, his employment is an example of this “post-work society,” a society in which there is a tangible benefit–enjoyment, network and yes, money–to doing what you love and using it to give back.
Nate Bronstein is a former teacher from North Philadelphia; he earned his Masters in Education from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently earning his second and third masters in Social Policy and Public Administration respectively. Nate has spent the last year working as both the Co-Founder of two D.C.-based startups working to solve inefficiencies in how people connect and organize, and as an Education Consultant working to analyze state-wide education programs in Delaware.
This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”
Part of the project, is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.