What Do You Do?
For most of history, all that was felt to be required to understand a person’s identity were a set of facts that had pretty been much settled at the moment of birth: one was defined by one’s gender, by the social rank of one’s parents, by the geographical zone one was born into and by the religious sect one’s family belonged to.
But in the second half of the 18th century, a new ideology began that set its face against all accidents of birth and beckoned us to fashion ourselves in our own style across our lives, a hopeful, dynamic philosophy known today as individualism.
When we meet a stranger, we do not, as in the past, ask them about their ancestors, their religion, or the place they grew up in. We ask them, first and foremost, what they ‘do’, for it is our work that has, more than anything else, come to be seen as the crucible of our individuality.
However, the connection between work and selfhood has ushered in distinctive new problems, for a work-based identity is by its nature extremely unstable: we are a sacking, a profit downgrade or a retirement away from losing an established sense of self. Equally, we may be transformed by a promotion, a trophy or a raise. Our identities are caught in a turbulent back and forth between hope and fear.
This job-oriented identity is further honored by the constant presence of competition in a market economy: our status and security are often wrapped in victories over others. It is said that completion is healthy but it has become mis-loaded. We end up wanting others to “lose” because, every time they do so, our own ideology and prestige will be enhanced. Without any intentional malice, we have constructed a world of continuous psychological as well as economic rivalry.
An individualistic philosophy centered on careers means that what we do outside of paid work comes to seem negligible or irrelevant. Our efforts with our families, our friendships, our enthusiasms don’t count in the eyes of others as any real answer to the question of ‘what we do’ because these pursuits are disconnected from a salary – and so must in turn grow diminished in our own eyes. There is a harsh irony: individualism was supposed to highlight our unique, intimate character, but it has in practice sharply reduced our sense of who’d what we might be.
It is not surprising that the first great sociologist to investigate suicide – Emile Durkheim – discovered that the more individualistic a society becomes, the more the rate of suicide rises. It is not poverty or illness as such that drive us to the ultimate act of despair. It is the sense that who we are has no meaning outside of visible success in the realm of work.
This changing though and we are beginning to see others not so concerned with what our jobs are but who we are are as a person. This is opening the doors of discussion and social meetings to be about more than what we do. It brings the the energy and focus to what we honor, what we teach, what we learn. It allows us to not be “one thing” or “one job” and opens the door to really connecting.
So the next time you are socially engaged and meet someone new don’t ask “so what do you do for living?” and instead just introduce yourself and inquire – What’s your passion? It gives them and you a chance talk about many more things than what pays the bills.
Peace and Love, Jim