Why is it that when you meet someone you ask “what do you do for a living?” I never really thought about it until the question was raised in some philosophy class in college, but even then I blew it off. The question is a good ice breaker and helps drive conversation. However, lately the concept has resurfaced and it feels like a fucked up question? It assumes a couple things; that the person wants to talk about work, and that what someone does for money defines their character. I am starting to question my approach to asking this question as a “getting to know you” conversation starter; so I am going to try something new this holiday party season…I am not going to ask people about work.
Yes, some people want to talk about work, but they are usually young, ambitious and still enthused with life or they are the owner of a currently succcessful company. Or maybe they are doing something they love and they want to spread it like gospel? But that’s the exception, not the rule. And lets be honest about another reality, you probably really don’t want to talk about their work either. Like what if they respond with the fact that they are an insurance salesman…what the fuck do you say to that? No offense insurance salespeople but insurance is just kind of like taxes, I have to participate but the injustice of it all turns my brain off the minute the words come out of your mouth.
Now to assume the character of a person, based on what they do, is a bit more fair. There are clear examples of careers, like nursing, where it could be safe to assume that the person is a caretaker and likes caregiving. But can you really? What if they just fell into the career of nursing? They could hate every second of it, but need the flexibility. Or maybe they are too invested to get out? Could it just be the benefits and paycheck? Who knows? And as a side note, the larger assumption I am making in all of this, is that choosing your profession is not a privilege. Which we know is a bad assumption given there are millions in our workforce doing work they hate. Maybe its because of bad decision making, but we cannot deny that there are systematic barriers to individuals professional pursuits.
I know I am getting too philosophical here, and many of you may be wondering why any of this matters? Well, we just went through one of the worst recessions since the depression. We have a generation of people who didn’t work in their 20’s, who couldn’t climb the ladders or take the risks due to the global situation. It wasn’t just a financial recession but a moral crisis too. There are new realitities of the American work force that we have to come to terms with. We may have a less than 5% unemployment but we have under-employment, low wage employment, and an impossible gap to fill in terms of creating sustainable jobs. Could it be possible we are trying to answer the wrong questions in our policy pursuits of “full employment?” We heard Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump address the need for full-employment, but neither were honest about the impossible nature of full employment in today’s global economy.
Instead of asking how do we make everyone fully employed through our current capitalistic constructs, we should be asking more important questions. Like how to we ensure those working are earning enough to be independent of government assistance (it is fact that almost 50% of our workforce is eligible for food stamps because pay is so shitty)? If someone is employed full time they should earn a wage that lifts them out of poverty so the “system” or government doesn’t need to intervene. Because that government intervention is now needed for the real gap in employment potential; the lack of sustainable jobs.
Many jobs that left in the recession just aren’t coming back. The days of hard work being rewarded with good pay are gone. We no longer live in a world where you can say hard work is compensated fairly. So how do we encourage work ethic in a world where the amount you work doesn’t correlate with the amount you are paid? How do we encourage those left behind in the recession to start new businesses, to pursue a trade, when those require high risk or financial investments and we live in a country with no social safety net.
We have existed as a society for so long that what you do, and let’s be honest, what you make, defines so much about who you are perceived to be as a person and our willingness to be empathetic. We have glorified wealth for decades with things like “the Lives of the Rich and Famous,” “MTV Cribs” and “the Real Housewives.” For some reason, wealth gives someone a level of credibility and acceptance that really isn’t warranted. In fact, I personally know divorced women that will openly say that because of their ex’s success or financial situation, they trusted them to be good solid humans. But overtime they saw that their partners success and wealth did not correlate with emotional capabilities. Instead money can be the noise that distracts you from seeing who the person really is. Yes, having the nice car, the big house, the fat savings account are all awesome bonuses, but they aren’t what holds a relationships together because they mean nothing in the end (well maybe a more complicated divorce). Most importantly, our generation should have learned that money comes and goes. We cannot assume it will always be there, nor should we base life decisions around it when we know the decisions of the top .01% dictates our financial futures more than any decision we make at the individual level.
So maybe we should stop evaluating people by “what they do” or how much wealth they have accumulated? Instead we should probably actually look into their hearts and souls. Are they good people? Do they make good, sound decisions? Have they grown as a person through their life? Are they self aware and take personal responsibility for their decisions? Do they do something they love (and not necessarily for a living but even a hobby)? Do they enjoy discussions of things outside of themselves? Have they invested in their education? Do they seem to gravitate to drama or feed off of it (yes that was a dig at you Donald Trump)? Are they thoughtful, intelligent and pushing themselves to be their best selves?
If this sounds awesome to you, the next question is where I am at today…well how in the hell do we change? Donald Trump just won the Presidency. If anyone represents the injustice of how wealth is distributed and how intelligence, values and compassion are not correlated with wealth, it is the Donald. His victory makes it hard to believe we can truly change the American mindset. With that said, we have to remember Donald didn’t win the popular vote. He didn’t win the people in the urban areas, he didn’t win millennials, nor any minority group in the country. Hell, he didn’t even win the Catholics. He won through an antiquated system that allows someone who lost more of the popular vote than anyone else in our history to still become President (seriously, Hillary has more votes than any Presidential candidate who lost, ever).
If we believe that we should reward hard work, compassion, sacrifice, quality and the pursuit of perfecting an art, we have to start doing that in our everyday life. We need to stop pretending that having the best wardrobe or the cutest house says anything about you, other than you like spending money? Money comes and goes, that Anthropology shirt will go to goodwill one day. That Pottery Barn couch will be crushed in a dumpster at some point. But who you are, how you live your life, the decisions you make today, will live on beyond your existence. It will live on in the values your children hold, in the community you leave behind, and the impact you had on others lives. We actually have the chance to change shit! To make it cool again to make your own clothes or grow your own food, not because you have to, but because that is what builds character and respect. We have to focus on valuing hard work and true simplicity. Because lets face it, it is only through simplicity that we have the capacity for self reflection and we can focus on being good humans.
I don’t have faith, but what I am confident about in human existence is that we are here to survive. Part of survival is keeping a roof over your head and food in your belly. Maybe the path to that isn’t corporate slavery? Maybe the path to that is just hard work, and more importantly a sense of community where we lift those around us, less fortunate up, instead of assuming the worse in them or being pissed that we are subsidising their life on the backs of our labor. We should be grateful our back still works and we can provide that support. Things like a community garden, a modest home and a life full of experiences that earn you enough money to survive and be secure in your existence should be our goals. Maybe our lives should be about the journey and not the end, because our story may be over tomorrow. Even though we all love to believe we have a say in our destiny, we don’t get to chose our narrative, we just get to chose what we do today.