“So, what do you do?”
It seems like an innocuous question, one that commonly follows first introductions, but deep down it carries more baggage than a celebrity headed to fashion week. Occupation is, after all, often inherently linked to status and capital - economic, social, cultural, you name it. Therefore, whether consciously or not, the answer to that question has a strong bearing on how we perceive others, and on how they perceive us.
Americans may not be touchy about their jobs; on the contrary we tend to blare it loudly and proudly from the profile of every social media platform we’re on, our email signatures, and the business cards we keep tucked away in our wallets “just in case” a networking opportunity manifests. But in France, my adopted home for almost a year now, it’s taboo to discuss it amongst those you don’t know very well.
I believe this difference runs much deeper than the stereotype of Americans just being, well, Americans - obnoxious, blunt capitalists lacking in social grace. The French, in contrast, are envied by the rest of the world for knowing how to live. Sure, the food is great here and the wine tantalizingly cheap, but their capacity for pleasure and enjoyment seems to stem from a different attitude toward life, one that I think everyone back home could learn from.
Put bluntly, Americans are obsessed with status, often conflating success and wealth in such a way that places individuals – and particularly young people – on a narrow-minded, linear trajectory. A TA I once had in college remarked that any conversation he had with conservatives involving fiscal policy inevitably invoked the phrase, “Well, when I get rich…” But I’m not here to talk politics. My point is: money. We love it. We think of it as our right. The thing is, it can be hard to recognize this particular value system if all you’ve ever done is been a product of it. Mark Mason recently published an astute essay of crucial observations about America that only became evident once he’d spent considerable time away.
It starts early. Daycare marks the beginning of the years-long battle that parents wage to get their children into top-tier universities. And once they’ve been officially inducted into the freshman class of the higher education industrial complex? There is immense pressure to succeed, to be “on track” and, at age nineteen, to know exactly what kind of career you want to have for the rest of your life. It’s absurd. Declaring a college major is a milestone and, for a lot of undergraduates, a decision marked by extreme anxiety. There are a lot of mixed messages too – counselors and recruiters wax romantic about how college is the time to explore and find your passion, while in the outside world the media reminds us how there aren’t enough jobs for graduates and that once Social Security collapses we will be the ones paying the price. Good on you if you “found yourself” in engineering or some other rapidly expanding market; if not, well, be prepared to be your own greatest advocate.
By contrast French youths are almost carefree - not only is it much more common not to have a delineated life plan, but it doesn’t seem to bother people as much when they don’t. This is not to say that education is not competitive here or that France doesn’t have its own share of economic problems, etc., but rather that the paradigm is different. My friends and peers from high school and college? They feel guilty and ashamed when they don’t know what they’ll be doing in ten years, five years – even next year’s time. I suppose, in a nutshell, it’s the difference between living in the present and living in the future.
Some American expats who have been in Paris much longer than I have admit that it can be difficult when they talk to family back home about jobs and money because they no longer share the same priorities. Their stateside relatives, for example, think it’s odd that someone with a bachelor’s degree would be working on a food truck in a foreign country. (I should note, however, that minimum wage in France is significantly higher than in the US, and when you factor in the exchange rate - well, we do pretty well for ourselves). In America it’s a given that you’re supposed to have some kind of end goal. Sure, you can join the Peace Corps for a couple years or backpack through Europe for a summer, but afterwards it’s time to get your shit together and find a “real” job.
My friend’s younger sister, as an adolescent, once upset their parents by telling them that she wanted to eschew the four-year college degree route and become a letter carrier for the postal service after high school. The parents, I should add, both have graduate degrees and highly successful careers. But what’s wrong with being a postman? USPS’ pending bankruptcy aside, someone has to make the deliveries, right?
After completing my bachelor’s degree and going straight to culinary school, I’m currently interning at a pastry shop where many of my colleagues are overqualified for the work that we do. Some of them have been working in the industry for a decade, in Michelin-starred restaurants and world-renowned hotels, and yet here they are in an establishment with little room for upward mobility because the head chef rules with an iron fist. Maybe I’m still too new to the industry to fully grasp how it works, but if it were I, with that much experience I wouldn’t want to be working under anyone else.
But is that just the American in me being judgmental? After all, even if we are a little too money-obsessed, you can’t deny that we have drive and entrepreneurship. What other nation has anything that comes close to Silicon Valley? My own alma mater recently made headlines because word got out that a small number of students have opted to abandon their degree programs in order to pursue their startups full-time. (For the record, it happens sometimes but it’s not the norm).
While it’s easy to sit back and say someone else lacks ambition, maybe said person is perfectly content with the way things are. You owe it to yourself to be happy, however that might be achieved, but don’t let yourself be pressured into doing something because it seems like the “right” thing to do. The only obligation you have is to yourself. Life is too short for self-compromise.