Work

Is it exchanging toil for so many dollars or is it the full expression of yourself? Is it the sign that you are you, the teacher/the builder/the nurse/the librarian/the engineer/the whatever, and still at it. 

I’m reading J.B. Priestley’s English Journey, with the rambling subtitle: Being a rambling of what one man saw and heard and felt and thought during a journey through England the autumn of the year 1933. 

From the start this book has given me much food for thought and reflection. And the concept of work is one with which I grapple. 

Priestley encounters Old George, the mason, who is building a wall. Old George knows he can do something better than most everyone else and enjoys his work. Work is the sign that he is Old George, the mason. George does not feel he is a cog in a machine and is not robbed of “dignity and sweetness of work”. George takes his wages home and is content, having left a wall of substance, of quality, one that will stand for a long time to come. 


When I started work in my 20s, I enjoyed it. The social aspect. The sudden income that made things possible. The feeling of making a contribution to society and a difference to the lives of individuals. Admittedly, there were many years of not working in my 20s; years spent finishing uni, backpacking around Europe and on maternity leave.  

In my 30s I worked as I needed to provide for my family. I was worn down by the amount of marking required as an English teacher and by some of the structures of the different institutions (non-gov) I worked for and fitting this in as a perennially tired working mother. But in the main, I enjoyed work. My identity was wrapped up in it. It gave a structure to my life. I felt satisfied that I was making a positive impact. I wanted to stay in teaching but without the marking. So I returned to study to become a teacher-librarian. Not working wasn’t a choice. I needed to pay for things, there were many things I wanted to buy; I couldn’t see myself doing anything outside of teaching. Not working was an alien a concept as atheism was in the Middle Ages. 

I no longer feel that satisfaction, that drive. I’d happily not work. (But with the same income.) My identity has become less about my work. I rarely answer with total accuracy about my job. Not because I am ashamed of it. Rather, to avoid preconceptions and because it is not who I am. Though if I stopped working, I’d probably say I was before I retired. Maybe to cash in on the kudos or maybe in final acknowledgment that my job is part of my identity?


It isn’t that I don’t have daily moments of enjoyment and fun at work. I do. I think I just want to have more time and energy for other things – travel, socialising, gardening, learning a language. And there’s many more things I’d like to buy.  Actually, I think I’ve just worked for long enough. 

Lucky George. Or is his contentment a sign of being of simple-minded, unable to question deeply one’s purpose in life?

Of course, questioning the role of one’s job in one’s identity sure beats the alternative. Being unemployed and without income. 

What does your job mean to you? Is it part of your identity? Or a means to earn income? Have you changed your views on work as decades have passed?

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18 thoughts on “Work

  1. So true. Twenties – work was a novelty, social, lots of learning. By the time I had children, work was so not my identity. It was a means to an end, pay the bills, have a mini break from the kids.
    I think the answer is we’ve had enough of full time work. We are tired and ready to embrace and appreciate the important things in life – socialising, gardening, reading and generally just pottering about.

  2. Asking the big questions!

    I earn far more than I spend. But when I consider not working, or changing roles and earning less, I feel uncomfortable. I’m accoustomed to the levels I save at, the flexibility it offers me. And I think $70 for four second hand items of clothing is expensive (ridiculous!)

    However, work is far more stressful than ever before. The restructure limpers on, and we wait. And then the sale fell through (as I think you might know) and now we’re in ‘holding pattern’ though there was an uniniated bid, which could mean we sell soon, without another full ‘for sale’ process. We’ll see. What’s most stressful for me in work now is not having autonomy. There’s so little that I can decide without approval. At least it feels like that – though to have recently realised I could make a decision without further approval was a small win! Truly – the heart of the stress rght now is that someone in my team will very likely lose his job, and I fundamentally don’t agree with that punishment. I agree he needs punishment, but if I was to force anyone to leave, he’d be WAY down the list. Oh – and this has been going on since APRIL when the incident occured. He would, and i would, have preferred swift punishment. Swift resolution (even if it was wrong, or horrible).

    I’m old George at times through – in the miniature. I find the things I know I do well, I do right, that make me, and the team, look as good as we really are. I just have such small glimmers of that to the blarring of all the ‘coulda/woulda’s that keep me working to continune to improve things.

    • You’re still young. At your age it was all fun to me. Even the not fun parts.

      Restructuring would be so stressful. As to autonomy, I realise the higher you get, others think you have autonomy but for most there isn’t real autonomy. Sux how bureaucracy takes so long to deal with issues. And then makes decisions that seem an over reaction. Seems to be universal in my experience. And then they often blame the unions. All the unions want is due process and fairness. I’ve had bureaucrats too scared to make a decision that I knew the union would back but then take extreme action against minor things.

      I think there are two major drivers for decisions. 1. Stop negative media stories (actually keep the minister out of facing negative stories). 2. Placate customers (clients/parents/whatever the customer is) to avoid 1. But I’m old and cynical. So ignore me.

  3. Asking the big questions!

    I earn far more than I spend. But when I consider not working, or changing roles and earning less, I feel uncomfortable. I’m accoustomed to the levels I save at, the flexibility it offers me. And I think $70 for four second hand items of clothing is expensive (ridiculous!)

    However, work is far more stressful than ever before. The restructure limpers on, and we wait. And then the sale fell through (as I think you might know) and now we’re in ‘holding pattern’ though there was an uniniated bid, which could mean we sell soon, without another full ‘for sale’ process. We’ll see. What’s most stressful for me in work now is not having autonomy. There’s so little that I can decide without approval. At least it feels like that – though to have recently realised I could make a decision without further approval was a small win! Truly – the heart of the stress rght now is that someone in my team will very likely lose his job, and I fundamentally don’t agree with that punishment. I agree he needs punishment, but if I was to force anyone to leave, he’d be WAY down the list. Oh – and this has been going on since APRIL when the incident occured. He would, and i would, have preferred swift punishment. Swift resolution (even if it was wrong, or horrible).

    I’m old George at times through – in the miniature. I find the things I know I do well, I do right, that make me, and the team, look as good as we really are. I just have such small glimmers of that to the blarring of all the ‘coulda/woulda’s that keep me working to continune to improve things.

  4. I think right now is the most engaged I’ve ever been in a job. I enjoy it; I like the people I’m around every day (students and staff.) I feel capable and even feel like what we do as a whole school entity is worthwhile.

    But ironically, I still see this as hopefully the ‘peak’ of a career; as working towards a point of leaving on a high. I would love the independence of not working. Thinking time. Travel time. Just being a less permanently hyped person. Definitely working towards that.

  5. I love my job, and the income and lifestyle it provides. Probably the best thing about my life is that it’s all “of a piece” and my job is so consistent with who I am as a person. I may have an unusual attachment to my job, though, because my personal life was chaotic for a long time. I loved the safety and belonging that my education and career brought me. When I’m not working, I like family and home and travel and reading and gardening and cats, but I still think of those things as “unwinding from work” activities and not the basis of a different life. If I didn’t have to work, I would want to fill my life with activities – maybe not for accomplishment, but for socializing and creativity. No, scratch that, I do want accomplishment. That’s who I am.

    • I am happy my work is consistent with who I am too. I don’t have to sell my soul or betray my values.

      I think, and I don’t mean any offence by this having been raised and raising my own kids with a strong work ethic (German heritage after all) but seeing activities other than work as unwinding from work, shows you have that work ethic. I think I liked the article be have it challenges the centrality of work as our society’s defining aspect of life and identity.

      BTW, I like to have accomplishments and challenges too.

  6. I will go out on a limb here and say I have a bit of an anti-work ethic in my own life. I was never shaped by a work identity – I had children straight out of uni, and living in a regional city we were able to live on one income while I raised the kids. Being a stay-at-home mother gives you absolutely no status in society, so I had to work out who I was outside of a work identity. I was recently rudely introduced to the workforce due to a marriage breakdown. I work 18 hours a week as a lowly Teacher Assistant – again a low status job, but one I enjoy hugely. I don’t have a mortgage (regional city house prices). 18 hours’ work pays more than enough for me to live on, really ridiculously abundantly for my simple life. I don’t spend much but I have a lovely life. My four work-free days aren’t spent unwinding, but building my real life – a web of friends and projects and community and up-skilling because I don’t feel like I will ever come to the end of the things I want to try out. Eventually I would like to drop my 18 hours of regular paid work for a patchwork of small jobs here and there reflecting whatever interests I have at the time. I’m not quite brave enough to do that yet, but my job security is very low, so who knows, I may be forced to be brave and become self-employed like George the stone mason. Though actually I would rather be JB Priestly, and write about stone masons. People wanting a stone wall built would probably prefer that too..

    • When I think of an anti-work person, I do think of you, Jo. I admire how you’ve forged an identity, not inspite of no work (ie not because of unemployment, so still defining choices by work as central) but as an active choice. I know I couldn’t be as alternative and brave as you. It would involve a total refiguring of my life and my identity. So I live vicariously through your blog.

  7. I was really shocked to discover exactly how much of my identity was tangled up in my working persona – I was a late bloomer, and didn’t start with the having of children until my (very) late 30s. I planned to take a full year of maternity leave and my long service leave (so 15 months in total) when I had Chaos, assuming that I would love it and take up with all my hobbies, and I would be making clothes and food and generally being the person I assumed I was.

    However, I wasn’t at all that person, and was really someone who was quite different. I started working when I was 14ish, finished high school, worked full time in a variety of positions before ending up in the federal public service in a department that shall remain nameless (partially because well, I never actually said who I worked for!) BC, I was reasonably ambivalent about work – I switched between two (actually, three) jobs, one of which I liked, one I tolerated, and one I could take or leave. Plus, I was studying part time (which I mostly enjoyed) and renovated a house in between times. So, yeah – didn’t think there was much likelihood that my job was that tied in with my identity.

    Fast forward to mat leave, being treated like I’d given birth to half my IQ by various well meaning souls (not looking at you, MiL), judged for everything I did or didn’t do (like putting Chaos in child care for half a day a week so I could keep going to uni, bottle feeding him, etc etc etc), second guessing myself endlessly, not doing any of the things I thought I would be doing… I ended up going to my doctor who said that I most likely had PND and when was I planning to go back to work, come and see me again once you’ve been back at work for a month and we’ll see how you feel.

    (Crikey, this is an essay, lol!)

    Anyway, went back to work two days a week, kept studying, had another kid (way more relaxed and many “whatevahs” to the alleged experts in my life), finished studying and kept working (three days a week by then) til I fell into my dream job which I’ve been doing for the last eight years. Reg said to me after I’d been working full time again that he’d never seen me so happy even when I had to commute for three months to the city. Then, when the financial planner dude told me I would be better off financially retiring at 55 and working part time because I’ll get a superannuation pension. Um. I spit on your silly ideas, mate. No. I will be working in some capacity until I’m not allowed to any more. I don’t work for the money. I work for – I don’t know. Because I do.

    • Love the essay! Working is also inextricably linked to my identity too. I’d like to be like Jo at Blue Day, but just as I dream about living in the country, or back in time of Little House, I know I won’t really be happy. I think I just need fewer work hours.

      I’ve tried faffing about in state office in the bureaucracy. So not me. I need an audience. I need the fun and humour of teens.

      You must be in the better super fund than me. I’m in the last bodgy one. Probably work until I’m 62 but with two years off somewhere in the mix.

      • I was in the second best federal one, and it’s still ticking along nicely (one of the less crazy things I did when I was on mat leave was continue to pay super as if I was working full time)

  8. Pingback: Work, life, imbalanceĀ  | lucinda sans

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