You Are Not Your Job, Especially If You Don’t Have One

Simon Kuper has a thoughtful essay in the Financial Times about how people, especially younger generations, are identifying less and less with the jobs they have or the work they do, and more with stuff they put on their blogs or in their Twitter bios.

This is nothing new to many of us (I mean, my Twitter bio is “your emotional IT department” and it’s kind of what I want on my gravestone), but I appreciated his point that carving an identity around the career you have is mostly a particularly middle class thing to do, that it’s after all, “difficult to construct an identity from servile work,” and that “we middle classes are simply experiencing what the working classes have been through since the 1970s.”

The piece opens with a bit about independent bookstore owners, which is a far-off identity dream of mine, that is when I am in the mood to embrace putting all my money in a pile in the center of the room and lighting it on fire.

How, I asked them, do people end up running their own bookshops? Oh, they said, there was a set route, pretty much the equivalent of taking holy orders.

It went like this: you are writing a graduate thesis. You start working in a bookshop to make a bit of cash. Your thesis tails off. You increase your hours in the shop. Eventually the ageing bookshop owner forces you to take over the thing. This is a profession of erudite drifters with completion anxiety.

Seems fair.

Photo: ArdeeSN


6 Comments / Post A Comment

dotcommie (#662)

These discussions often happen in the context of people de-identifying with soulless jobs, or opting out of the fast lane to take more meaningful work. I have a do-gooder job, though, and still struggle with this–sometimes I think it’s harder because if you fail at your job, you’re failing your cause and the people who depend on it. I need to constantly remind myself that my personal life is most important, that a mistake at work shouldn’t ruin my whole day, that saying no to extra work is ok because I have other values and responsibilities (including grad school!).

charmcity (#1,091)

@dotcommie Yes, I think in the non-profit world, people identify with their jobs to a huge extent. This is easily exploited, as employers expect us to trade monetary compensation for “meaning,” which usually translates to an unhealthy over-identification with your work. Indeed, the ethos is so twisted at this point that a person who does not over-identify with their work is considered less qualified for it, as if our employers are the ones who are doing us the favor by allowing us to work on weekends, at 7am, at midnight because the cause is so important.

Meaghano (#529)

@charmcity Yes! I have had jobs at smaller companies where we are a “family” and we all “believe in what we’re doing” and while it’s really nice to be sincerely passionate about what you’re doing — I mean, how many people can say that? — I think what you’re talking about is the flip side. You don’t really step back as much and consider how well you’re being paid, or how much work you’re doing, or how you’re being mismanaged, because if you really care, you’d just be so grateful to be “a part of it,” etc. It’s a hard balance.

gyip (#4,192)

@dotcommie This article is insanely timely … I just had lunch with one of my former professors on this.

I kind of identify with some of the comments here … if only for my boyfriend’s sake. He not only worked at smaller companies being treated like family, but also in an artistic industry, so he’s very invested in his work. He puts in extra hours all the time for nobody but himself, and that exacerbates when he is giving extra hours because someone else made a bad decision.

The last time he worked at a smaller company, they struggled financially and couldn’t give him his last cheque. He waited four months for them to get their stuff together. I had to really push him to speak to the labour ministry so he could get some external pressure on them.

echolikebells (#3,272)

@dotcommie I think you are so right on the money with the prevailing attitude in the world of non-profits. I’m struggling with the very same things you are, with mostly the same efforts. Trying to remind myself that I am not just my job, and that there is more to my life than work, that there are other values and activities. Part of that has been, for me, actually making myself busier! I’m volunteering and gym-ing on the regular now and it helps, because I don’t have a choice but to distance myself from work sometimes.

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

This is absolutely the case in the academic sector as well. “Love” is supposed to make you grateful even amidst financial insecurity (i.e. running out of funding before you finish a PhD, or having to adjunct for $2000/course) and insane demands (staying in lab until midnight regularly, teaching and researching as if both were full time jobs, putting together job application packets with dozens of personalized pages for each listing). But after living on next to nothing in training for a job, and working incredibly long hours, because you are judged on your “love” for and “commitment” to your work, you shouldn’t be so “entitled” as to expect these years of preparation should lead to secure employment.

Some people do get jobs in their fields, sometimes people transition successfully to other fields, and I personally have had some experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything as a graduate student, so I’m not saying it’s a total scam or anything. But I do think the language of “love” and pressure to identify with your work are rhetorical diversions from legitimate economic concerns.

Comments are closed!