What are you?

The answer most of us would give, according to the customary social script, is an occupation: truck driver, teacher, sales clerk, or whatever we might happen to be doing for our paycheck. If we’re older and no longer working, then the answer changes to retired, perhaps with our previous career description tacked on. As students who haven’t yet entered the workforce, we might talk about our particular course of study and a career plan based on it. When we’re married and spending our days taking care of small children, we occupy a traditional niche in society as a stay-at-home parent.

But there are no good answers in this script for those without jobs who don’t fit the categories of retiree, student, or homemaker. Unemployment doesn’t just leave a person with no money—to a large extent, it also strips away his or her identity. Our society has plenty of words to describe the jobless, but that lexicon is viciously pejorative: bums, slackers, moochers, takers, lazy, useless, and a burden to others. So when we’re unemployed, that means we’re not only faced with the stress of looking for a job, not finding one right away, and going through our savings (if we’re lucky enough to have some). We also have to deal with the perception that anyone who doesn’t have a job is a worthless social failure.

And right now, although things are slowly improving, there are a lot of people who don’t have a job. We live in a society that is struggling to adjust to the massive impacts of globalization and modern technology. At present, the world’s economy is fragile and all too easily disrupted. There are many more people looking for work than the number of jobs available.

It’s not always going to be like this. As the world becomes fully industrialized and birthrates continue to fall, we can expect that many industries will face chronic labor shortages. People who are looking for jobs will have no problem finding them. But we’re not there yet; and in the meanwhile, we have to ask ourselves—on both a collective and an individual level—how we’re going to deal with today’s difficult job market.

Without getting into the political debate about whether the government ought to focus on job-creation programs or tax cuts, I’ll simply note that both sides recognize there is more involved than money. Politicians, whatever their party affiliation, commonly talk about work in terms of a person’s dignity and ability to contribute to society. Work is generally understood to make up a large part of our identity.

Before the modern era, when there was very little social mobility, defining people’s identity in terms of their occupations made a lot of sense. If your father was a blacksmith or a carter, you probably were too, if you were male; and you would never do anything else, unless you had the bad luck to get conscripted by a passing army. Everyone in your town would refer to you as John the smith or Tom the carter. A man’s occupation was a quick and easy way to distinguish him from others who had the same given name, back when common folks didn’t have surnames.

Now we live in a complex, unpredictable society where most workers will change jobs many times. Career retraining has become commonplace as old industries shrink and new ones emerge. It’s not unusual to get a college or university degree in one field and then end up employed in another. Modern workers are more likely to migrate to another city or country, and we have more diversity in our personal characteristics and interests. As a consequence, a person’s job says less about his or her identity than at any time in history.

And yet, we still ask children what they’re going to be when they grow up. The dominant cultural narrative is much the same as it was centuries ago, defining our personal identity and value in terms of how we earn our pay. If we get laid off and can’t find another job, or if we’re stuck in a low-paying job and have had no luck applying elsewhere, it’s hard to look at the situation objectively and not feel like we’ve been rejected by society in general. Our culture takes it for granted that a person’s dignity and value depend on employment status.

There are many variables that go into determining that status, however, and often they’re not under our control. We can’t reasonably be expected to predict an economic downturn that causes our company to go bankrupt or a technological advance that makes our work experience obsolete. Prejudice or nepotism can cause a less qualified applicant to get hired instead of us. Maybe our employer decides to cut costs by moving production overseas. We can’t prevent any of these things from happening, so why do we allow them to change how we feel about ourselves and about other people in our community? We might do better to think about redefining our values, in more ways than one.

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