What do you do?

The United States likes to think of itself as the very embodiment of meritocracy: a country where people are judged on their individual abilities rather than their family connections. The original colonies were settled by refugees from a Europe in which the restrictions on social mobility were woven into the fabric of the state, and the American revolution was partly a revolt against feudalism.

In Thomas Jefferson’s day, aristocracies were far-reaching. European nations had powerful nobles who inherited their status, promoted their own self-interested politics and often considered their interests to be superior to those of the majority. They demanded legal privileges unavailable to others. In contrast, Jefferson hoped to create a society in which all citizens were considered equal.

Jefferson described the creation of meritocratic America as, “aristocracy of talent and virtue.”  Toil, which had been seen as a necessary evil at best and mostly as a penance, was transformed into an expression of identity, a way for people to measure themselves and others.

“What do you do,” became an unavoidable acid test of relevance.  And, there was much ‘happy talk’ about work being fun and the workplace being family.  We started to expect our jobs to feed both our savings accounts and our souls.

In today’s economy if you’re lucky enough to have a job — especially a cushy, high status, well paying job — you might feel guilty about how much you hate it.  Prosperity perpetuated a little white lie that work is supposed to make us happy.

pleasures_of_workAccording to British author Alain de Botton in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, the big question is, “When does a job feel good”?  In his book his answer is, “Rarely.  The tragedy is that we expect anything more.”  Sometimes a job should just be a job — not what we live for, but what we do in order to live.

shopclassMatthew B. Crawford, an academic turned mechanic, echoes de Botton’s pessimism about the search for satisfaction in the daily grind, but goes further.  In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford says more people should consider manual labor which offers the comfort of objective results (does the car start or doesn’t it?) and says this offers a fusion of thought and action that makes a man “quiet and easy.”

We may not be able to identify ourselves as easily today with the answer to, “What do you do?”  In fact, we might be talking about the importance of work that can’t be outsourced overseas.



Filed under Book Reviews, Economics, History, The Economy

4 responses to “What do you do?

  1. This is a very interesting thread, I will have to go look up who wrote it. I have a career that I pursued due to me wanting my work to be meaningful and my desire to avoid drudgery. I get satisfaction from my work, but because I expect so much from it and those I work with – this can be a problem sometimes. I am lucky enough to have time to pursue other activities/work that enhance my quality of life – teaching, research, (occasionaly blogging :-))etc.

  2. annie moose

    “Crawford says more people should consider manual labor which offers the comfort of objective results (does the car start or doesn’t it?) and says this offers a fusion of thought and action that makes a man “quiet and easy.”

    Always worked for me. This kind of sums it up

    • I’ve always said that the guy mowing for the county has the best job. Low stress. Regular hours. You know exactly what your job is and you see instant results.

      I’ve had jobs doing the same thing that the county’s noxious weed supervisor does in the winter. Nothing.
      Even paying well, those jobs suck for me.
      No satisfaction.

  3. You know what I’ve found at work?
    Your skills and abilities are maybe 20% of why a person is hired and/or promoted.
    Politics, cliques and alliances in the workplace are paramount and comprise the other 80%.
    Regardless of how ‘fair and even handed’ they management thinks (or pretends) to be, most jobs are one huge popularity contest.
    Usually the person with the most awesome skillset does not fit in with his mediocre group, and his job is always in jeapordy.
    Just my observation.