My Job, My Self

I’m intrigued by the psychological devastation that seems to accompany layoffs, not to mention ordinary unemployment, as well as underemployment. It doesn’t seem to be just a matter of money – it seems to be a matter of self-worth, self-esteem; personal identity seems to be at stake.

It’s an intriguing claim: one is what one does for money. And I suppose that insofar as one chooses what one does, it’s valid. But one doesn’t necessarily get to choose one’s work. That’s the false premise. Perhaps there was time one could so choose – perhaps, between 1945 and 1970, if you lived in the U.S. or Canada, and if you were white, and if you were male, and at least lower middle class.

Certainly in many European and Asian countries, the state has told people what jobs they would have. Even in the U.S. and Canada, in war time, the state made that decision: a lot of men would not otherwise have chosen to be soldiers, a lot of women would not have chosen to work in munitions factories.

But political power is not the only factor that coerces one’s career choice: economic pressures, as in the Depression, have not only determined what job one had, but whether one had a job.

And let’s not forget social pressures: the ‘career’ choices for people not privileged by sex, race, or class have always been less broad. Do you really think that every secretary chose, out of all the careers there are, to be a secretary? (Do you really think ‘secretary’ is a career?) Social conditioning, whether it be by society-at-large, the school system, or the family, has always led us, pushed us, in a certain direction.

Even when the options are many, they are few: what are the odds that, of all the jobs available, both my father and my brother would choose one in the insurance business? Pretty good, considering that it’s human nature to choose what’s familiar. My guess is that my brother didn’t even really consider being an electrician, let alone a secretary.

So there have always been constraints; what job we have (or don’t have) has never been totally up to us. Perhaps only now, as a result of downsizing and closures, with the consequent layoffs of middle management and senior workers, are the middle class older white males finding out about it. And, as usual, something doesn’t exist until the middle class older white male experiences it.

As an artist, perhaps I’ve had an advantage. Artists can rarely earn a living from their chosen work; they’ve always had to do something else for money. So we know that you don’t have to be paid for what you do in order for it to have value. We know that that attitude, though common (surely it’s responsible for the demeaning label of ‘hobby’ – not until I sold my work was I considered a real writer) is mistaken. Look carefully and you’ll see that it’s also inconsistent: in some very important cases (oddly enough, cases in which women dominate), getting paid decreases rather than increases the value of the endeavour consider mothering, consider sex. So ask any artist ‘What do you do?’ and the answer will be ‘I write’, ‘I paint’ or whatever, not ‘I’m a waiter.’ Our identities have never been confused with our jobs.

And unless non-artists learn, and learn quickly, to make the same separation, we’ll be one sorry-looking society pretty soon. It’s a sad thing: lose your job, lose your self. But it’s really nothing new – it’s no different from the empty nest syndrome and the retirement phenomenon. I have met people who want a job ‘just so as to have something to do, somewhere to go every day.’ Geez, what bankrupt pathetic souls they are. Get a life! A job is secondary.

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