The cultural dilemma of work as part of self-definition

Elisa Grandi
Feb 8, 2016 · 4 min read

Thanks Austin Munday for proposing again this interview, it’s really worth reading.

The development of the new technologies and the rise of the use of big data are modifying completely our societies, therefore we need to start answering some important questions for our future. Two of them are for sure social welfare and work.

Unemployment is rising. Machines will replace a great number of human work and according to many experts, like Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier authors of “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think” or Jeremy Howard in his Ted speech “The wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn”, the new jobs will be insufficient to replace the older. We will simply need less people working.

Moreover, as the interview points out, we need to think about the type and the quality of the jobs. I’m not so sure that we will maintain unnecessary work places, we can keep them for a while, but when the next economic crisis arrives, almost all the unnecessary jobs will be cut off.

Luddites: 19th-century textile workers who protested against newly developed labour-economizing technologies. Neo-luddism is already here.

Nevertheless there will be maybe a polarisation in the labour market: we would have high qualified job and unqualified ones, the reduction will affect above all the middle position jobs (for example teachers: with the new technologies how many teachers will we need? how will their job change? Think about MOOCs - massive open online course - for example). Unqualified jobs perhaps are boring and repetitive, but can we address to them as unnecessary?

Maybe I don’t agree completely with D. Graeber’s labour market analysis emerging form the interview, but I think he gets to the point: we need to think about social welfare, we must rethinking it, reformulating it and use all our creativity proposing new solution. His proposal is clear: basic income.

I will not discuss this proposal from an economical point of view, but as a cultural anthropologist I would like to focus on an interesting cultural matter.

I suspect that when the interviewer says:

“some people would be bored if they didn’t have a job…. Some people would be hanging around and wanting something to do”

he foresees exactly a cultural issue: the dilemma of identity.

In our societies, occidentals ones, we don’t work only for money, our job has also become part of our self-definition. Nowadays thanks to our job we gain money and we feel useful to the family or to the society. Feeling productive is actually very important to us. Our job provides a pice of self-definition and as a consequence social recognition (or of course unrecognition).

It is not a coincidence that when you introduce yourself to someone the second or third question of the conversation will be: “What do you do for living?”. And when you study a foreign language this question is always one of the first topics.

What do you do for living?

Moreover we can think also about childhood and schools. How many times do we ask to our children what they want to be when they grow up? The 99% will answer naming a job position.

Furthermore when we choose a school we don’t focus only on our current passions but also on job’s opportunities that we will achieve thanks to these studies. Today one of the aim of a school is preparing students for the labour market, but soon this could become a great contradiction.

It is also true that we have a negative evaluation on jobless people. It seems that there is something wrong in being unemployed. Maybe you yourself happened to be without a job and feeling ashamed, or it happened to you coming across a beggar and thinking “why don’t you get a job?”. To be jobless is a kind of sin and deep down in our hearts we feel that an unemployed merely is not doing enough: he doesn’t really want a job!

So are we sure that a basic income will answer entirely to unemployment?

I think not. We will be call to a huge cultural and philosophical change, a redefinition of what work means for us and furthermore a new way of defining our selfs.

What do you do for living?

Unemployment due to new technologies development is becoming an urgent problem and call us to looking for creative solution to social welfare. The basic income is one of the proposals among others, but it will be not sufficient. The “Work” plays nowadays an important and complex part in the narration of our identity, it is an instrument throughout we obtain social recognition and that help define our social role. We don’t need only an economic solution for unemployment, rather we need a holistic view and plan of action. We would have to consider changing way of thinking about work and identity. In this process we must rethink basic institutions like schools, but far more important will be the adjustment of our system of values.


I looking forward to hear different points of view, so I really appreciate you leaving a comment.

Elisa Grandi

Written by

curious mind, anthropological eye, human heart

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