What Do You Do?
I make the point a lot that we need to ditch our society’s obsession with equating a person’s value with the work they do (that is, with their “busy work” as Aaron Swartz delightfully put it). Usually the context is a discussion of basic income, or of unlocking human creative potential.
But the problem is a more urgent one than these contexts would suggest.
Changing the conversation about work is about society’s goals. But it is about much more than that. It is about what we value. It is about who we are. It is about how I see you and how you see me. Ultimately it is a comment about a colossal existential crisis of confidence. It is about saying “I see you as having no intrinsic value, and I see myself in the same way.”
It is no wonder we are speeding off the cliff faster than James Dean driving the chicken run in Rebel Without a Cause.
In the last 24 hours I have seen two wonderful creative friends agonise because they don’t know how to handle the question “What do you do for a living?”
And they are right to agonise. Not because there is anything to be ashamed about in being creative, but because the fact such a question exists; because it exists in the context of placing someone in your value matrix; because it is considered in any way a useful way of assessing another human being — because those things should make us furious.
“But isn’t it just small talk?” Yes, that’s the point. Our small talk is the manifestation of those values that are so self-evident as to be placed beyond question. It is precisely because the questioning of anything that finds itself protected by the small-talk label is absurd, pedantic, killjoyish that it tells us so much.
And what we put there is the fundamental notion that at base a human being is measured by their contribution, their utility. Much of the debate around basic income focuses on the importance of freeing us from “busy work” to do “work that matters”. But at a basic level even that misses the point. Our value as human beings is in no way connected to the contribution we make.
What we do to people, how we treat them in our day to day, social, and political lives may be the result of reflections upon what they do. For example, even the staunchest valuer of the human spirit may want to protect the world from the damage caused by someone who dedicates themselves to harm; and even the most person-centred political activist may want to say a definitive no to an ideology they perceive to be toxic, regardless of the consequences for those who hold it.
But those things are reflections. They are second steps. They are what comes *after* the unconscious first movement in our relationships, the movement that enacts itself as “hello, I love you.” Our debate, our dark nights of the soul concern themselves with such second steps. Our small talk embodies our first step. And so long as our small talk is “So, what do you do for a living?” that first step is not “hello, I love you” but “hello, what can you do for me?”
And that just won’t do.
In 99% of our life, of course, we do not notice such subtleties. Practically speaking, our interactions may change very little by considering where we start when we think of others. But 1. if we are going to get the future right, then it has to matter, we have to strip things right back and start in the right place; and 2. it shouldn’t matter. Valuing someone “just because” is the right place to start. Wherever you then go from there.