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?