What I Do For A Living: A Rant

[This essay was published on whywork.org in 2002, and its defiant tone and sassy attitude has made it a reader favorite.]

What I Do For A Living: A Rant
by D. JoAnne Swanson

“So, what do you do for a living?”

Ah, the dreaded question.  I hear it at parties, family gatherings, even from store clerks.  I never quite know how to answer this one.  My knee-jerk, unspoken response is often “Why?  Who wants to know?  Are you going to use it to deem me worthy or unworthy of some kind of privilege when you find out?  Are you trying to determine where I fall on some kind of social acceptability or class scale?  And does it matter, really, in the larger scheme of things, whether I clean floors or crunch numbers or herd cows?”  But that kind of response would lead into a much longer conversation than I want to have, in most cases.

Think about it, though.  Can you blame me for being a bit on the defensive side?  I get weary of having whatever it is I’m doing (or, as the case may be, NOT doing) treated as such an important part of my identity.  If it’s true that, as the old saying goes, no one ever said on their deathbed “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”, then why do we act as though what we do “for a living” is so crucial for most of our lifetimes?

C’mon, folks…are our identities really so tied up in our jobs that this is the first thing we want to know about someone we’ve just met?  It makes me want to spout off about my character, spirit, values, interests, family, community…things that are much more important than “what I do for a living”, by which people usually mean “what I do for money”.  But the well-intentioned questioner is mostly just being polite, fishing for conversation.  I don’t just take the question at face value; I look at it as an opportunity to encourage people to question the commonly accepted link between “making a living” and “having a job”.  So sometimes I set aside my desire to rant, reasoning that I have a better chance of opening minds if I lighten up a bit.  I then smile and try to play along with a one-liner response, as if I were somehow oblivious to the commonly accepted meaning of that loaded question:

“What do I do for a living?  Well…I live.”

That one doesn’t always go over well.  The person asking will often look at me askance, and chuckle as though my response was a feeble attempt at humor.  Sometimes they even get a little irritated.  But they keep asking:

(sarcastically)  “Ha ha.  What I mean is, where do you work?”

“At home” is my answer.

My lifestyle and choices are based on a worldview that’s very different from the mainstream idea of “work”.  To most people, work means “having a job”, and strong financial pressure makes having a job little more than wage slavery.  So an answer like this is likely to be misinterpreted, I’ve found.  It’s almost as if most people can’t even conceive of a kind of orientation toward productive activity that has nothing to do with a job or a paycheck.

“Oh, you work at home?  Do you telecommute?”

Telecommute.  Another buzzword of the 1990’s, reflecting the reality that more people have computers at home, but also indicating that we think of work mainly in terms of “commuting to a job” and far less often in terms of simply engaging in enjoyable activity that is productive.

“No, not exactly.”

“So you don’t have a regular job, I gather.”

“If by ‘regular job’, you mean do I go to an office or worksite where I spend five days and forty-some hours a week performing tasks in return for a paycheck, no.”

(nodding suspiciously, but interest obviously piqued)  “Ah, I see.  Well, what do you do to support yourself?”

Kind of a nosy question to ask a stranger or a new acquaintance, isn’t it?  I sure think so.  By this time I’m often ready to launch into a long rant about how silly it is to use phrases like “making a living” and “supporting yourself” to denote “getting money and maintaining your middle-class lifestyle”.  These phrases are social niceties designed to cover up the harsher reality that many of us are wage slaves who feel trapped in jobs they don’t like and are looking for a way out.  But most folks who ask the kind of questions above haven’t really given much thought to how they use those terms.  Besides, that’s not what they want to talk about; to them, such distinctions can seem like nothing more than splitting semantic hairs.  Most often, what they’re really saying is “Wow, you mean you manage to live a comfortable life without a job?  I hate my job and I’d love to quit.  How can I do it, though, with bills to pay and mouths to feed?  It’s just not practical.”

If I’m in a slightly less defensive mood when I’m asked what I do for a living, I reply simply that I am happily job-free.  I use that term, “job-free”, in an attempt to differentiate me from the involuntarily unemployed.  If I refer to myself as simply “unemployed”, it feels inauthentic.  If I say that, the questioners often assume that I am, or believe I should be, looking for another job—and that I am completely idle or doing nothing worthwhile (read: nothing that brings in a steady paycheck).  And that is far from the truth.

I love my life.  I do plenty that’s worthwhile outside the confines of a “job”.  Work and play are not two separate things for me.  I love the way I spend my days and the work I choose to do, and I do a lot of different things to meet my financial needs.  Even if I were completely idle, I take issue with the implication that idleness is somehow morally corrupt.  And if “worthwhile” automatically equals “making money”, I wonder how these folks would classify raising children, for example?  Is that a worthwhile pursuit?

Frankly, I refuse to evaluate the worthiness of my daily pursuits mainly by whether or not they occur in an office or on a worksite (a “job”), could garner me a paycheck, or could net me some commodity that can be sold in the marketplace.  I find that such thinking saps my internal motivation to get things done.  When I follow the callings in my heart, it feels very worthy to me; and ultimately, that’s the litmus test by which I evaluate my activities.  THAT is what making a real living means to me, whether money is involved or not.

Working solely for a paycheck is wage slavery, and I want nothing to do with it.  If that makes me a “slacker”, then I claim the title with pride.  And while we’re at it, I don’t think the whole answer to freeing people from wage slavery is to encourage them to do what they love for a living.  That’s all well and good, and it’s a start…but I want to encourage people to re-think the nature of making a living entirely.  When we live under a system that coerces us into taking some kind of job in order to meet our needs, it’s much harder to envision any satisfying reason for working besides “well, it’s good money, and I have to pay the bills.”  Industrial capitalism has perverted the idea of work, and equated it with “jobs” working for someone else higher up in the food chain who profits from your labor.

Let me call attention to the enormous amount of fear that must be operating in our collective psyche (behind the veneer of civility and liberty), in our supposedly “free” society, to make us concerned enough to focus so single-mindedly on questions like “what do you do for a living” in the first place.  It really saddens me that there are so many of us who live under the psychological shackles created by equating jobs with money and survival.  If we keep our focus on fear of how we’ll survive without a job, we feel much more driven to put up with deplorable conditions in the workplace…and what’s more, we can end up spending our entire lives waiting for the day when we can finally be free to do what we want, instead of what garners a profit for our employers.

I’d like to suggest that we all start thinking about exactly what it is we’re asking when we inquire about what someone does for a living. That’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer.  At least not when you ask me, that is.

(Copyright D. JoAnne Swanson, 2002. All rights reserved.)