What is the first thing you ask someone you’ve met for the first time?
‘So, what do you do?’
And how do you respond when someone asks you this?
I recently had to think about this when flying to Fiji a couple of days ago, starting our trip. No sooner had Mr. Outboundpassengerform asked my name, he was grilling me for details of my occupation.
When I was a child, I thought you got paid to work solely as a means of compensating you for being away from your family and friends, away from the things you wanted to do. Work seemed like a kind of punishment. I hadn’t yet made the connection that what you did for work was supposed to be somehow useful.
As a slightly older child, I began to make this connection. Maybe I would have made the connection faster if I had a parent with an occupation like farmer or carpenter – something with a tangible product. In any case, ‘work’ to me was something that took you away from what you wanted to be doing for the purpose of money.
When I was older still, and working myself, I began to see the wiseness that younger me had (in this instance anyway). Certainly most of the time, yes, I and those around me were doing something of value and being rewarded for it. But other times I saw instances of ‘work’ that provided no value at all – or indeed actually detracted value. People staying late to put in a good appearance. People whose presence is detrimental and distracts or upsets other employees. In Japan, falling asleep on the job is viewed as showing how committed you are, that you will overwork yourself in this way. Bragging about how many hours you’ve clocked this week. Somehow, we’ve confused time spent ostensibly ‘working’ and visibility with diligence when it comes to salaried positions.
The first definition given by the Free Dictionary for ‘work‘ is
‘Physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something’.
The second definition is ‘Such effort or activity by which one makes a living; employment’.
Somehow this second definition has taken precedence. Work seems to only be deemed important in society if it makes money.
Which is considered more prestigious? Taking care of a child? Looking after an elderly relative? Giving away copies of your epic novel? Volunteering to paint a mural for your local kindergarten?
Or being a high-powered lawyer for the tobacco industry? A scientist developing new kinds of bombs?
What does it mean to ‘make a living’ anyway?
Joe Dominguez, author of Your Money or Your Life cautions that many of us may actually be making a dying rather than a living.
Do you ‘bound through the door, refreshed and energized, ready for a great evening with the family’ after work? That’s what we should be doing if we are truly ‘making a living’.
‘Most of us spend much more than 40 hours out of the week’s total of 168 hours earning money’ says Dominguez and co-author Vicki Robin. A couple of years ago I attended a professional development seminar at which several of the speakers suggested anything less than 80 hours a week was ‘slacking’.
Is it any wonder that people define themselves by their jobs if this is what they are doing for most of their waking time?
Working an 80-hour week, and still managing to allocate around half your time to the ‘necessary functions‘, leaves only four hours a week free time.
Perhaps you have heard of Tim Ferris’ book The Four-Hour Work Week?
The reality for many busy workers at all levels is the exact opposite.
Either your free time is relegated to the space of just four hours (that’s 34 minutes a day!) – or your ‘necessary functions’ become neglected. You eat rushed instant meals and takeaways at your desk. You miss sleep. You start checking your work email in the toilet.
David Graeber’s brilliant article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs begins with John Maynard Keynes’ prediction that by the century’s end (he was writing in 1930) countries like the US and Britain would have achieved a 15-hour work week. As Graeber points out, in technological terms, there’s every reason to believe this could have become a reality.
But for every job we have automated away, we seem to have come up with a ‘bullshit job’ to replace it.
Why do we make work for ourselves?
I’m certainly not arguing we not work at all – just questioning a) the value of much of the work that goes on (if you don’t agree, make sure to read Graeber’s article in full!), and b) the necessity of valuing paid work above other kinds of useful contributions to society.
But surely people need work? How will they feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their families without it?
Yesterday I finished re-reading Robert Tressell’s brilliant book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (available for free on Project Gutenberg – I highly recommend it). The book explores several hypotheses to explain poverty – overpopulation, substance abuse, laziness, the mechanisation of jobs, rejecting them all in favour of the protagonist Owen’s definition that poverty ‘consists in a shortage of the necessities of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their needs, those people are in a condition of poverty. If you think that the machinery, which makes it possible to produce all the necessities of life in abundance, is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me that there must be something the matter with your minds’ Rather, Owen contends, it is the money system that is the cause of poverty.
Work should be a means of producing things (physical or not) of value to ourselves and others, for us to enjoy at our leisure. Not a time-suck that takes up most of our waking hours and leaves us feeling drained and distracted in the few that remain.
Think about this the next time someone asks you ‘What do you do?’ at a dinner party.
How do you really want to respond? How do you want to define yourself?
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