"Oh, You're Just a Barista"
And other ways false ideas of upward mobility harm workers—and make no sense, full stop.
I was a barista—making drinks and working behind a counter—consistently for eight years. From the moment I stepped behind the bar in my first coffee position, I thought about when I’d be able to “advance” into a better job.
Throughout my career, I’ve been a shop manager, a trainer, and a (very part-time) salesperson. But because I was still behind the bar, working shifts, I’d ask myself if I was failing because I hadn’t yet moved past that particular stepping stone in my working life.
Those moments really came back to me during my recent podcast conversation with Julien Langevin. Julien is the 2022 U.S. Cup Tasters Champion, and he spoke candidly about how we view upward mobility in the workplace. Julien is a production worker: He works 40+ hours each week doing manual labor, bagging coffee, and learning how to roast. He’s also a passionate coffee taster.
There’s a prevailing sense in the industry that, in order to reach those positions, you need to check off certain roles or experiences first. Begin by becoming a barista, maybe work up towards a shift lead or managerial position—and only then are you “allowed” to consider alternative jobs outside of the cafe.
A lot of jobs function like this. You’re meant to work upwards, aim towards a clear goal, and “pay your dues” before you end up at the top. But this linear way of thinking ignores so much about our own goals, needs, and individual interests and talents, which Julien experienced first-hand. On returning to barista work after finding his passion for tasting:
Julien: I’d been a barista for four years. I started as a barista as a cisgender girl when I was 18, I came out as nonbinary and started using they/them pronouns after I left Starbucks.
This was like, 2015, so this was kind of before people really knew what gender nonconforming people were like, popular? I don’t even know how to—
Ashley: By and large?
Julien: Yeah, by and large. It was kind of the culture at the shop I worked at where—there were a few trans people working there, and the culture was like if someone misgendered your coworker and they didn’t correct themselves, if you were at the end of the bar, you would correct the customer.
So I had people telling me, “‘They’ isn’t a pronoun. Like you’re not—what is that?” Basically saying that how I identified wasn’t a thing, and that was constant. That was just like all the time. I hadn’t had top surgery yet, so I was binding my chest. I bound my chest for four years. There was a period of time when I was like, only wearing button-up black polos because it was the only thing that I felt okay in. It was just really hard being nonbinary as a barista.
I came out as male in the spring of 2019, started hormone replacement therapy, and still hadn’t had top surgery at that point. You know, the conversation around transness in the U.S. was definitely changing, and people started to know what it was, but that didn’t really change much for me. I still had people gendering me as she, even though I was wearing men’s clothing, banding my chest, shaving my head. It was really hard.
And you know, every time you correct someone and they look at you weird or they apologize too much, or they make you feel, sometimes unintentionally, just weird about it, you’re like, “Wow, I hate this.” And it was just every day, it was every single day I would go to work and it was because I was front-facing, public, and my body was changing. I’d also been working there for like a year and a half. So people like knew me as this, and then I was that, so it was just like a whole thing.
And also like watching my friends. One of my friends, close friends, was a trans girl, and just watching her get misgendered even more than me … It’s like going to cry. It was really hard.
That coupled with COVID, I was just like, “Yeah, I’m done. Like I can’t,” and that’s what I thought—I was like, “Oh, okay. So I am like damned to being a barista or I leave,” and I just left. It’s not worth it. I was done.
The idea that there are certain steps you must take to advance in your career is especially harmful to people of marginalized identities, who often face harassment because their jobs are front-facing. As Julien notes, a lot of people feel like they’re damned to be baristas forever, but there’s nothing about the majority of coffee jobs that requires anyone to have worked previously as a barista.
Boss Barista takes a lot of time ⏳ and energy! Support the work by turning on the paid option:
On the flip side, a lot of people love being baristas—but then they need to grapple with the ingrained expectation that they’re supposed to want to move beyond that, that it isn’t a satisfying endpoint. Julien mentions this as well:
I think that being a barista was one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had for many, many reasons, but I think any kind of front-facing job where you have to not only defend yourself but also coffee, I think it carries a lot of weight that many people don’t give a second thought to. They’re like, “Oh, you’re a barista.”
It’s like, well actually, being a barista is sometimes very hard. And I feel like that’s something that a lot of people don’t really realize.
Recently, Julien has confronted this narrow idea of linear, defined career trajectories again. As the current U.S. Cup Tasters champion, he recounts facing the different challenge of folks asking him what he’ll do now that he’s a national champion:
I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about what to do next. Or like, what do I want—now that I have this, what do I want? It’s interesting because I had a career before I won. I was learning how to roast coffee and I was doing my job.
I think now I just get to have a lot more options in terms of geographically where I could see myself or who I get to have access to now. I was happy before I won, which was not something I’ve ever felt in my life. I very recently started to feel like I was content.
What happens if you find a step that suits you and want to stay put—even if it’s only partway up your supposed career ladder? What if you love being a barista, and want to keep working in that role—doesn’t that deserve dignity? Shouldn’t we want the people who love their roles to stay happy and fulfilled in them? Even more importantly, shouldn’t we want to make work safe for everyone, and find roles that both suit everyone’s skills and keep them feeling protected?
I’d argue that our obsession with upward mobility is what is making so many low-wage, public-facing jobs entirely untenable for many. It’s that tired argument that “fast-food workers are all teenagers, so we don’t have to pay more than minimum wage,” extrapolated outward to all types of service and low-wage positions.
We assume that folks want to move up and out of certain positions because we give these positions no respect, even though, as the pandemic proved, these jobs are essential and required to keep our society going. We don’t seem concerned about ensuring these positions are viable or enjoyable, and therefore care little about the people who work them (that’s why folks employed in industries like food and service, retail, and healthcare and social assistance face the highest levels of harassment at work).
I’d heard some version of, “Oh, you’re just a barista,” either directly to my face or in my own head for years. But it’s a fucking pleasure to get a beautiful drink from someone who enjoys their work, feels safe, and is paid well.
There’s dignity in every job, and everyone has the right to feel safe at work and garner a viable, living wage from the labor they do. Reorienting our thinking along these lines is a first step in dismantling hustle culture, and the capitalist idea that constant advancement is the only way to achieve.