Saturday, 4 September 2010

Does our Job define us?

Most people need to work, or should I say most people need to get paid for doing something but why is it that when we find ourselves out of work, we experience a disproportionate amount of worry?

I do not believe that the thought of running out of money is the key to this anxiety.

Adults will regularly ask children “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. This is considered to be a helpful conversation starter and an insight into the interests of the wonderfully changeable mind of a child, but it also performs the unintended function of defining a person by their chosen career path.

As we get older the trend continues, schools will direct pupils in a direction that the student (or parent) chooses. At the age of 14, when I was asked by the English schooling system to decide which subjects to study I felt I was being asked to decide what I would do for the rest of my life, a daunting proposition for a confused teenager. This is the point that the conformity issue raises its head. As a teenager, one is under an immense pressure to conform with pre-determined classifications and through the eyes of a teenager, the peers who seem to find it easy to choose a “career” appear to become the socially acceptable.

Teenage angst aside, the pattern continues through adult life. Most social gatherings will at some point contain the question “So, what do you do?”. I am fortunate to have enough confidence to answer this question honestly whenever it is asked and field the inevitable questions when I cannot be pigeon-holed, but I can imagine that even as a “grown up”, this situation can be stressful.

So, when we have a traditional career (doctor, teacher, fireman, etc.), we are usually proud of the hard work and long hours of study that we have put in to reach the point we are at. This, quite reasonably, means that when we are asked the “What do you do?” question, we are happy to be assessed on the perceived “ranking” of our career, since its prerequisites are normally well understood by our audience. On the other hand, when one does not have a traditional career (I have a feeling that is most of us), then the thought of having to explain the intricacies of why we are doing “X” or “Y” at the moment can often deter us from wanting to be involved in that conversation at all!

I do not mean to belabour this subject; there are many other factors at work in this scenario. For example, group status, self belief and the behaviour of others will all have an effect.

Moving on with the subject, I feel I should also highlight the other, rather obvious, influences put upon us by society, telling us to “…get a better job…” or to “…go for that promotion…”. The greatest of these must be the well established dynamic of consumerism. To live in modern society we need money and having a job usually gives us that income. Modern society, as we all know, exposes us, through advertising, to numerous ways for us to be parted from our money. Rather than simply paying the mortgage and the bills, we choose to spend our income on slightly less necessary consumables; a better car; a bigger TV, etc.

All these additional desires lead us to require more money and, more than that, reward us with pleasurable experiences that serve to temp us into further spending. This is not really all that bad; after all, most of us would be happy with a new car, or a new house, wouldn’t we?

The point I have been leading up to is this. The job we have does not really define us as a person, but more usually it simply provides a route to achieving all those things you desire. In a utopian world, maybe we would all be able to perform a job which fills us with joy. Would it still count as “work” if you loved every moment of it?

I have to admit that I don’t believe there will ever be a massive social change, removing the stigma from certain jobs. I do, however, believe that we should not be judged solely on the basis of the job we perform. These were the thoughts that directed me towards writing, something which I have rarely done publicly. I would prefer to be remembered not for the task I perform, but for the thoughts I provoke in others.

Going back to the hypothetical, generic social gathering… I love ‘em! Who cares if you get asked a few ice-breaking questions like “What do you do for a living?”. I am more interested in what I do for a life. Pushing other peoples understanding of the world, pushing my own, is stimulating (and occasionally annoying).

I don’t mind being defined by my job, as long as I can be heard. I can’t stop myself from thinking, so I had better not stop myself from writing.

by Doug Miles

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