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Why Your Job Is Not Your Life

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“So, what do you do?” came the first words from someone I’d just met. It wasn’t until some time later that I thought what a typical, yet odd question this was. The guy’s question was typical in that I expected it. Typical in that I’ve asked the question myself a thousand times. Typical in that it acted as a point of departure for our conversational journey. We ended up discussing early 70s music, by the way.

But “what do you do?” is also a fundamentally odd question. First, it could very well pertain to any number of actions. “You mean, what do I do on weekends?” “what do I do with my friends?” Of course, most people understand that “what do you do?” means “what do you do for work?” or more egregiously, “what do you do for a living?”

Oddness aside, why is what I do–or what anyone else does for pay–a conversational default?

I think it has something to do with our modern brand of capitalism.  To paraphrase social critic and author, James Howard Kunstler, asking someone “what do you do” in 1830 would have been received by a fair amount of head-tilting.  Just about everyone was a homesteader, a farmer living off the land and directly satisfying her and her family’s needs. “What do you do?” “Well, what do you think I do? I tend to the chickens, then the garden, and after that, I see what needs fixing around the house.” Odd question; mundane answer.

So why do we ask “what do you do?” I think it’s mainly to define others, size them up,  and stereotype them in capitalistic terms. “So, you’re a plumber”–someone who works with his hands, makes decent money, and probably isn’t too well read–that’s cool.” “Oh, you’re a nurse?”–a stressed workaholic who cares deeply about people–good for you.”

We can’t escape “what do you do?” We find it neatly answered in obituaries–”for forty years, he worked at Pepsi Co in Springfield, MO”–and at cocktail parties–”oh, my research focuses on gender issues.” In these and countless other venues, we pigeonhole complex people as “authors” and “advertisers”, “teachers” and “tailors”, “software developers” and “civic engineers.”

And when we define ourselves and others by our jobs–or careers–we  degrade the richness of our human experience. From what I can tell, even the most rewarding jobs:

  • Degrade our relationships–”Sorry, can’t make it tonight, got a job report due tomorrow.”
  • Drive us to consume beyond our need or any clear purpose–More than 76 of working Americans drive alone to work. And how many extravagant vacations are taken each year with goal of escaping the stresses of work?
  • Prevent us from developing life skills by forcing us to spend most of our waking hours confronting the peculiarities of Excel–”who has time to learn another language, how to plumb, garden, craft, or fix things, I got spreadsheets to fill!”

When we promote paid work and push for “living wages” we seem to be saying that jobs are some sort of Machu Picchu, a kind of Promised Land.  Yet, we all know that outside of the office, the cubicle, the classroom, the factory floor, and the lab is where life really happens.

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