You Are Not Your Job

Work is the nexus of activity and identity for millions of people. The standard workweek in the United States is 40 hours—almost a fourth of the total time in a week—with many people exceeding 40 hours per week. And, however much we may try to avoid it, jobs bleed into the hours when we’re not on the clock, too. There are things to get done and commuting before work (with occasional time-stealing black holes of dread). Plans, commuting home, and various ways of unwinding and recuperating after work. And days off (from work) where we attempt to rest and play hard in the downtime before work starts again.

Time is frequently organized around jobs with periods of ramping up before and cooling down after. It can be difficult to start and stop work without any carryover. Especially at a time when work texts, emails, and phone calls can interrupt at any time. Thanks, smartphones.

We regularly describe ourselves in profiles and to other people as a teacher, a barista, a musician, a small-business owner, and so forth. Or if we don’t currently have a job, as unemployed, a freelancer, a job-seeker, or retired. We talk about who we are as the job we have, the work we used to do, or the job we wish we had.

The way we spend and organize much of our time, and how we view and describe our own identity, is in relation to work.

Work, of course, is the way people make money—the predominant way we conceive of and exchange value in the world. Few people are in a position to chose not to work. Homes, food, transportation, education, healthcare, and more, all require quite a bit of money. And so most of us are forced to sell a large chunk our time, energy, and talent as labor for someone else, with the result that a lot of what we do in a given week and how we think about our lives is centered around that work. It’s almost natural to identify who you are with your job—given how much time it entails and the value (income, primarily) you get from it.

A lucky few get value beyond income. Relationships that transcend co-worker, or character growth, or personal satisfaction. But the percentage of people who really like their job is very small. Most of us do not and will not work the job of our dreams. Instead, we sell ourselves to do some combination of tolerable tasks and sheer drudgery. If you define yourself by your work and you don’t find your job meaningful, think your company or job responsibilities are embarrassing or intolerable, or you don’t make enough money to actually live off, your sense of identity and self-worth are going to be pretty shitty.

If you are working your dream job—fantastic. You are indeed lucky. But even those who are could suddenly lose it. Strongly identifying with your job doesn’t leave anything else to define yourself by if things change. And we’re all familiar with real or fictional stories of the workaholic who ruins their life and the lives of others by doing nothing but work.

It’s as cliche as an inspirational quote book to recognize that life is much more than the money you make, the job title you have, or the business you work for. But the overwhelming obligation and influence of work make it difficult to keep perspective. We have to remind ourselves that there are other forms of value than money–forms that are rarely achieved in workplaces today. And remind ourselves that work is something we do rather than who we are. Life is not merely for laboring for pay until you retire or die—though it can definitely feel that way.

Life is for discovery and pushing the boundaries of who you are as a person. To do our best to live well in a holistic sense. We need to make our actual selves the center: our emotions, relationships, interests, and potentials. Not what we do to get paid. It can be difficult to do that, but not impossible.

Most of us need to get better at how we use what we call free time or leisure. The typical impulse when we have time to do whatever we want is to veg out. But leisure is not necessarily a lazy or unproductive thing (unproductive–there’s another work reference butting into the rest of our lives). Leisure, when it’s done well, has a self-enriching and value-creating result. Maybe you watch an hour or two of Netflix because you feel like you need it. But then you move on to messing around on an instrument for awhile. Or to baking or cooking. Hiking. Coloring. Reading. Building. Or some other activity that challenges you in healthy ways and gives you a rich sense of purpose and identity. The contrast between some repetitive drudgery you do at work and the deep flow and meaning you experience doing something like hiking or composing a song is striking. But the contrast doesn’t exist if you always choose to veg out instead of exploring your interests and potentials.

Free time is also for relationships. A crucial part of who you are is being a friend, a mother, a brother, a spouse. There can be a temptation to veg out when we spend time with others, too. Like going out to get mindlessly wasted together instead of doing something that actually deepens the bond you share. Maybe it’s a couple nice drinks in a place where you can have a long conversation. Or going to the gym together. Or cooking a multi-course feast and losing track of time enjoying it. Leisure is often better when it’s with others, and it can be a shared way of upholding and expanding identity and self-worth.

And leisure is also good for getting your emotional self and internal monologue on track. Much of it happens as a byproduct of doing the right kinds of activities with the right people. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to do some self-reflection or meditation. It allows you to process through emotions, anxiety, crazy thoughts and bad narratives running through your brain, and things in need of healing. For me, yoga is an important part of my free time. But if something like that is too much, maybe it’s as simple as sitting on the couch without any noise or distractions, breathing deep and slow, and paying attention to what comes to the surface. What kinds of emotions do you feel? What are your heart rate and stress levels like? What kinds of hurts do you notice? Meaningful free time includes healing and restoration.

As long as our economic and social structures remain as they are, most of us will have to continue to devote big pieces of our lives to jobs. But we shouldn’t define ourselves by them. While we keep a post-work future on the horizon, we can be more intentional with our free time. Then the right things are at the center of how we think about who we are and how we grow over time. You are not your job or the job you don’t have. You are a human being—more expansive and interesting than anything you do for a paycheck can contain.

The Common Good: A New American Dream

It seems pretty clear at this point that the original American Dream isn’t something that’s ever going to be a reality for most people. The typical trades training or college education, good-paying middle-class job, family, kids, home, car, retirement, etc. path is a naive relic of capitalist optimism from decades past.

Today, for those who make it through college, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt without a payoff end date in sight. Finding a job becomes as much about a modern form of indentured servitude as it is entering a satisfying career. And because employment prospects are precarious, even people with high-level degrees can have difficulty becoming or staying employed with enough income to pay the bills. Nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to.

For those who are able to get some employment and income stability, only 13 percent of people worldwide say they find their job engaging. “For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfillment, or redemption…” 87% of workers around the world see the tasks they must complete as insufferable, pointless drudgery.

Is this the kind of world we want? Surely we can build something better than this.

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of Inventing the Future, think so. Though they cite plenty of sad statistics about the current state of affairs like the 13% one above, they still have grounded hope for an imagined future that would actually benefit everyone.

Inventing the Future advocates for what some call a post-work society. Instead of continuing to struggle for robust full employment–ensuring the original American Dream for everyone (which hasn’t happened and is extremely unlikely to ever happen)–we should aspire to full unemployment. Work would become something that you do only if you desire to. Maybe your personal passion is to spend time writing or counseling or farming. You can do that. Or, you just don’t work at all and spend all of your time with family, friends, traveling, and whatever else you want to do with the 80 or so years you’re given. Instead of being indentured to a soul-crushing 9-5 job that you may not even have next year, your life (and everyone else’s) is freed up to live it in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.

How is such a post-work future possible?

First, we need to transition to a universal basic income for all people. Each and every citizen receives a stipend of what they need to cover the basics to live: food, shelter, transportation, etc. Is this a costly project? No question. But as Srnicek and Williams note, “…most research, in fact, suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programs, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.” There are already a number of communities and countries considering a shift to universal basic income. And it’s not an entirely new or outlandish idea. Previous American administrations and Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, attempted to pass versions of it. It could have already become a reality several decades ago.

Having the foundation of a universal basic income will allow people of every socio-economic background to decide whether they want to do additional work or not. Maybe you want to dabble with being a professional musician. Maybe you want to hold public office. Or maybe you want to just have a day full of family, exercise, food, learning, entertainment, and other things that make you feel whole. The point is that the basics are taken care of. Work becomes a choice rather than a necessity.

But if many people don’t work because the inherent necessity is gone, who’s going to do all of the stuff that needs to get done to keep the world afloat?

Part two of a post-work future is full automation. Anyone who doesn’t see that the majority of existing jobs are already in danger of replacement by automated technology is in denial. Whether it’s 10 years or 50, anywhere from about 50-80% of jobs will see the human being replaced with some form of automation. Even for careers that seem irreplaceable like lawyers and chefs, there is already technology being developed that will be able to perform the same or better as the person currently doing it.

Instead of allowing this change to emerge without much reflection and planning, we should hasten it with strategy and financial support. After all, if only 13% of employed people like their job anyway, we should see automation as an ultimately good thing–developing technology that can slide in to perform the tasks we’d rather not do.

A universal basic income and full automation would fundamentally change the nature of what work is. And that’s good thing too. Instead of having to rationalize dehumanizing drudgery, paycheck-to-paycheck living, college debt, and the rest, we would have a society where work is truly only the vocational pursuits that add to our individual and shared humanity.

A post-work society like this is much more reflective of a world aspiring to what’s good for people. And, hopefully, we’re all coming to realize that what’s good for people is actually the common good. That’s an American Dream worth pursuing.