I’ve been thinking a lot lately about wage-work, in part because I’m at that point in my life where not only I, but also many of my friends, are launching their careers. Given the circles I move in, most of the folks I know graduated from college in the early 2000s and spent a few years odd-jobbing, moving around, exploring. Then most of us ended up back in school for professional or other advanced degrees: law school, the seminary, library school, PhDs. And now, as we enter our thirties, we’re transitioning (once again) out of academia and asking ourselves anew what we want the rhythm of our lives to be like.
And, given the current recession and the economically conservative political climate, asking how much agency we actually have to act on those desires and visions. In short: issues of class, material resources, individual agency, collective responsibility, and “choice” have gained a new importance in my personal, political, and work life.
So watch for future posts on this topic in weeks to come.
In the meantime, I wanted to call your attention to post that a friend of mine (I’ll call her The Archivist) wrote recently over at her new blog Oh My Sainted Aunt about Americans’ relationship with wage-work and how we think about work vis a vis our identities (emphasis mine).
When a friend came back from her junior year abroad, one of the many stories that she shared with us was that Europeans rarely ask one another, upon introduction, what they do for a living or where they work. This anecdote has since been confirmed by other Europeans and travelers that I have met. The reason given is that in other cultures, unlike in the United States, work does not define a person and by asking this question, you imply that their value is limited by their profession. It’s seen as an attempt at measuring someone’s importance or status and is quite a faux pas.
Having awareness of this cultural difference has led me to consider how frequently I discuss work. I just moved to a new city and outside of a few old friends, most everyone I’ve socialize with are my coworkers. The default topic, is of course, work. In particular, our workplace dysfunction, which seems funnier and less tragic over a few beers. The thing is, these are fascinating people. Because we work in a museum that focuses on medical technology and science, my colleagues come from all walks of life. I find myself wondering about the things they’ve done and seen, and yet somehow always forget to ask. Partly this is just me: I am loathe to ask overly personal questions or pry for information and because people have such diverse comfort levels with these sorts of things, I tend to stick to neutral topics. Like work. I think this is the case for a lot of people – I have many friends who tend to be rather “out there” with their interests and experiences and will ease their way into these topics because they are somewhat out of the common. But really, aren’t the best dinners out with friends the kind when it’s a mix of people and we are forced to not discuss work because it would leave out our dinner companions? It’s not only more interesting and more fun, but it provides necessary relief. Personally, I try to never think about work except at work. I am paid to do work and think about while I am there and it is important for my sanity that I limit such things to 9 hours. (Read the whole post over at Oh My Sainted Aunt.)
So I’m curious, Harpies, to hear how you think of yourselves in relation to your work. I’m getting the sense — in part through the comment thread on foureleven’s post about library science — that a number of you have advanced degrees with plans or aspirations of pursuing a professional career. Do you feel like your chosen field in some way defines you? Do you embrace of resist this definition? Do you talk about work outside of work? Do you discuss non-work topics at work? Do you socialize with colleagues outside of “business” hours, or do you pursposefully keep business and home life separate? Has your thinking (or practice) on any of these issues changed over time?