Why Can We No Longer Define Ourselves by a Job?

Published on 5/19/2021

When I meet people older than me, such as my parents’ friends, one of the first things they want to know about me is what I do. But to say that I’m an online marketeer feels like a lie. Because I’m more than this, and this isn’t what I plan to do forever. It feels wrong to call myself this and ignore the fact that I write fifteen articles a month for my blog and Medium and continuously work on a manuscript that I hope to get published. But if I were to call myself a writer, they would instantly find the holes within it. Where is my published book then? Do I earn enough to make a living through my articles? They equate identity to profession, and profession to income and success, neither of which I have yet.

But when I meet younger people, fellow Millennials, they’re slower to ask about my employment, and when they do, it is the context of “what do you do for a living?” rather than what I am. Because as our society develops and changes, we increasingly recognise that these two questions are different. When we ask children what they want to be when they grow up, they shouldn’t say fireman, hairdresser or teacher. They should say that they want to be funny, to be kind or to be loyal. This may be a lot to expect from children, as I vehemently claimed I would be a princess - I’m still waiting for that Kate Middleton opportunity! But then the responsibility lies with us to show them that this question shouldn’t be about employment but rather that an identity is constructed of so many things, or just to rephrase the question.

We are coming to a place where we can no longer define ourselves by a job, and I couldn’t be happier. But what is leading us to this esteemed position?

The deprioritisation of an office

When you spend eight or nine hours a day, five days a week, in an office, it’s only natural that this would seep into your sense of self. For the majority of the week, you spend your time in a place that labels you as an accountant or a customer service agent, which leads you to retain this role after you’ve walked out the door. Then when you meet someone at a bar, a restaurant or even on the street, it’s too easy to depict yourself as only that, as if this is the most interesting about you.

Even before the pandemic, we were beginning to move away from this rigid form of office work. There was the possibility to work from home, and there was flexibility being introduced to hours, as we finally started to recognise that not everyone works in the same way. A lot of research suggests that the best working week would be four hours per day for maximum production and health. This is something my manager once acknowledged to me, and he claimed that it would work so much better for him as well, but that we remain too far from introducing this and normalising it. I work four days a week, something that’s growing more common in the Netherlands but IS unheard of by friends in the UK. I can’t imagine spending 5/7 of my week in an office and spending the entire time waiting for a weekend. Additionally, I need that day to work on my writing career.

Then came the pandemic, the effects of which will be felt for years to come, and we’ve progressed even further in the deprioritisation of an office. We have realised that the majority of us could do our job from home. Our companies have continued to function, albeit with the loss of esteemed Friday drinks, and work went on in this new normal. If we can work this way, why would we not continue to do so? The allure of social interaction may encourage us to visit the office, but it certainly won’t be enough to keep us there four or five days a week. Why would we spend all of that money on rent and transport, as well as the time of a commute, if it isn’t necessary?

When you remove the employee from the office, you remove the rigid labels of work as identity. When we complete our jobs from a desk at home, or even our couch, we no longer view it as this overarching control of our life. If we work from the place that we live in or the place where we also enjoy our love of baking, writing, or painting, these things can hold the same power in constructing our identity. When we move away from the office, we move away from defining ourselves through our job. Because you’ll change job many times throughout your life, so why identify yourself through it, when there are so many more interesting aspects to who you are?

The rise of the side hustle

It feels like just about everyone has a side hustle these days. They vary greatly, from selling handmade candles on Etsy to becoming an Instagram Influencer. Many of us writing on this platform, this author included, are doing so as a side hustle to their regular job. We are finding a way to increase our income through a source that is not our everyday job, thus rendering it less vital in our eyes. It may not be enough to sustain ourselves, hence why it remains a side hustle, but it produces an income, however small. One of the main facets of a job is that it provides you with the money you need to live. Money doesn’t buy you happiness, but it does secure a roof over your head, food on your plate, and that delicious gin and tonic to celebrate the weekend. Perhaps that’s why people tend to define themselves through a job, as that income leads to everything else for them. It is their anchor in society, their ability to keep up with group trips, birthday dinners and more. But if you can create financial gain elsewhere, it loses that role as the sole breadwinner and thus releases its hold of you ever so slightly. We grew up knowing that a university degree won’t secure a job for us anymore, that we’ll be working for over half a decade before we could even briefly consider the idea of a mortgage. We don’t know that we’ll get, or keep, a job, and so we don’t pull all our identity eggs in that basket.

But the rise of the side hustle could be impacting this in a different way, as maybe it is the room to embrace passions. Many of us don’t enter side hustles with the intention of financial security, but rather to do what we love and to be rewarded for it, however slightly. If I weren’t writing articles on Medium, I would still be writing, just words that would never be read. If Medium stopped paying writers, I would still be here. A side hustle is a chance to continue what you love; it’s a hobby dressed up in glitter. Because we can keep doing what we love and not hiding it in a cupboard as a shameful act, we allow it to creep into the definition of ourselves. We allow ourselves to be more than an online marketeer, a waitress or a teacher, as there is so much more to our passion than just one job.

The upheaval of gender norms

In the Netherlands, a new practice growing in popularity is for working fathers to have a day off per week called a “Daddy Day”, when they stay at home with their children. Research shows that 25% of Dutch men officially work part-time. As I mentioned, four day work weeks are more accepted here, and so even men in high positions are adopting that schedule to increase their involvement in childrearing. The same goes for working mothers, as this practice also allows both parents to be working whilst only placing a child in daycare for three days a week. We’re continuously moving further from the assumption that a woman has to stay home with her children, with either both parents working or having a stay-at-home father instead.

When a woman had to stay home with her children, she lost the ability to use a job as her identity, instead, she would identify as a ‘mother’ or search for alternative possibilities. Now that men often stay at home and are less versed in using fatherhood as their identity, we move away from this concept entirely. We raised women to believe the best identity would be motherhood, but now that they can have a career as well, they’re quicker to use two identities, as it would feel wrong to consider themselves only through their employment as if negating a vast part of their life. Men also are unwilling to only identify through whether they’ve beared children, as they weren’t raised to do this, and so they also move away from this rigid concept of identity.

As we change our expectations of marriage, family and purpose in life, we also welcome the fluidity of defining ourselves. We allow ourselves to be more than our job and to consider our job as a means to the end. We can enjoy our job, we can find passion in it, but we also know that we don’t have to find it there, that it doesn’t have to be the most important part of us. We can exist without work, and we can exist with work, and we continue to do precisely that. A job no longer defines who we are, maybe because we were raised to know that there is no certainty to finding a job in this economy, to know that we have options in life, that the 9-5 is slowly withering away, and we can go with it, or charge past it.

Fleur

Fleur

Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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