What is the Question ‘What Do You Do?’ Really Asking?

So many of the things we do on a daily basis occur without us ever taking a second to notice them. We are constantly thinking, feeling, acting, and reacting based on what we perceive of the world around us. Part of the reason we glance over things or don’t stop to analyze all we do is due to our bounded attention. We are surrounded by so many things and are constantly active, which would make self-examination get in the way of being able to do even the most mundane tasks. This level of analysis would be unnerving at best. Imagine as you walk to work you are constantly asking yourself: “Why did that person choose to go that way? Why did I cross the street against the light? What are the political ramifications of that construction project? The overpowering complexity of the world around us would reward this behavior with anxiety and stress. However, when channeled, this questioning attitude towards even the most seemingly insignificant act can produce a profound redefinition of something that once seemed so clear, which produces confusion about other things assumed to be true, and inspires further inquiry into the workings of the world around us. In line with our commitment to understanding the profound implications of our actions, I’d like to apply this inquisitive spirit to a rather simple question that seems somewhat silly to analyze, but that actually reveals quite a bit about the way we construct our vision of the world. The question being one we often ask shortly after meeting someone for the first time: What do you do?

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Why this question?

My reasoning for taking a closer look at this question comes from a personal experience I can remember rather vividly. In 2014, after a nine-month stint teaching in Spain, I had returned to the US for the summer, or longer—I had the option to return to Spain for another year, but I was curious to see what opportunities existed closer to home.  My good fortune, meaning my access to resources allowing me to autonomously choose my future, equipped me with the self-confidence to know I could approach my future openly, without the need for a definitive plan. I was proud of the person I was becoming, and although I didn’t have an answer to the question “What do you do?” I felt I didn’t need one.

I realized this to not be true during a visit to Philadelphia to see my college friends shortly after returning home. My first night there was filled with rowdy hugs and “how are ya’s,” stories about what had happened while I’d been away, and beer, quite a bit of beer. After some time, we made our way from a friend’s house out to a bar for further festivities and some dancing. Buzzing off the liquid confidence our bubbly friend gives us all, I decided to try and talk to some strangers at the bar. You know, to make things interesting. This was relatively easy, it isn’t all that hard to make small talk, but I remember one thing in particular. Each and every person I spoke to asked me what I did—or, better put, what my job was. I had been lucky and despite only having been home for a short while, I was working at the time, but I knew what I was doing wasn’t right for me. I was honest to these people and told them my open-ended perspective of the future.

While this response didn’t elicit direct judgment, it didn’t produce the open, receptive reaction I might have been expecting. Family and close friends would provide encouragement and acceptance, but a complete stranger didn’t have the same level of understanding about me and who I was to be able to appreciate this response for its honesty. Perhaps this is simple self-consciousness and this “tension” was a product of my imagination, but even if this is so, it does not take away from the fact I felt my answer wasn’t good enough. This led me to change my message to something people were expecting to hear, so I started telling everyone  I was a teacher. Straying from myself helped me forge greater connections with those around me, and this seemed strange to me.

So, naturally, I started tossing the events of this particular evening around in my head. I had always thought of my job as something separate from me, but this belief was thrown up in flames when I tried to present it to other people. Asking this question, “What do you do?” is such a simple act, but this is what makes it a perfect opportunity to examine the awesome ramifications of our most insignificant actions on developing our image of the world around us. Let’s take a look at what I perceive are the hidden questions inside the question “What do you do?”

How much money do you make?

The crassest implication of asking someone what they do is to try and get an idea of their economic status. I know many of us may not be actively searching this information, but that’s the whole point. It’s implicit in the question. We all know roughly how much money corporate engineers, construction workers, waiters, and teachers make, so when you ask someone what they do, you are really asking what their income is.

This doesn’t make this question inherently bad, but it does make us wonder what “sub-conscious” associations we make based on the information we receive. If you are someone who is approaching the age where you might like to get married, and someone says they are a part-time waiter, will you give them the same chance at being your future spouse as someone who perhaps works as a software engineer? Much of this depends on your position in life; if you are working in a job earning a relatively high salary, perhaps you might shy away from someone so far away from your income bracket. Again, we do this not consciously, but rather sub-consciously, for when considering things like a spouse, we don’t only consider emotions, but also the practical aspect of joining our life with another person, such as earning potential and career ambition.

By no means does this apply to everyone—in fact, many of us could probably find concrete examples of people in and around our lives who regularly interact with people who make different amounts of money. However, in my experience, this often only comes when the bond between people was formed elsewhere, such as a past experience or childhood. When you move into the world and need to forge new social networks, income is a factor, like it or not. If you can’t afford to go out to eat every week and take weekend trips to the mountains, you will not be able to make friends who engage in these activities for fun. I have lived this and can attest to the stratifying nature a person’s income can have on forming social relationships. At times, you can only get so close to someone because the activities they engage in are outside of your price range. This is pretty powerful when we stop to think about it, as it shows us how something so insignificant, such as the amount of money we make, actually has significant consequences in that it denies us an opportunity to get to know people on a personal level.

Who are you?

Probably the next most poignant ramification of the question “what do you do?” is how it relates to identity. Our jobs, whether we like them or not, are components of who we are. This makes sense—we are taught to believe the natural state of things is spending most of our lives working, so we intrinsically seek some occupation in line with who we are.

To understand this further, we can bring in self-determination theory, which basically outlines the path to self-realization through the search to satisfy three basic needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. We want to feel as though our individual efforts matter and that we have control over them; we want to feel some sense of connection or relation to those around us; we want to feel like we are good at something. The theory follows that humans inherently want to grow and optimize themselves, and they do so in response to these needs.

A lot of work has been done connecting this concept to the idea of intrinsic motivation, which is that internal source of motivation that pushes us to do something in spite of external factors. This has received a lot of attention recently in the world of business as it becomes more and more evident that bonuses and other financial incentives only go so far in motivating people. To get more out of workers, companies and other organizations need to try and motivate from within.

This is where, in my opinion, things get messy. I accept self-determination, understanding who you are, is an essential human need, but mixing this in with work is dangerous. Largely because there just simply aren’t enough opportunities for people to make money while doing what really makes them “them.” Of course, there are loads of people who have been able to find this, but generally speaking, these people come from well-off segments of society where choice over the work you do is available and of major importance. Essentially, to be able to do what you want to do you typically need either a) an education to be able to give you access to the job that defines you or b) resources to be able to sustain yourself so that you can pursue your true self. This is where the idea of a “starving artist” comes from. However, this is not a pity party for artists, but rather a real consequence of attaching identity and work. For billions of people across the globe, including millions inside the United States, access to education or the resources needed to develop oneself is simply not there. A child growing up in poverty in West Philadelphia does not have the same opportunities to become themselves through work as someone who grows up in one of America’s wealthiest suburbs that exists just 20 miles away.

At this point, the defender of the American dream would step in and say “well, if these people got to work, they could pull themselves up and find this sense of self-satisfaction in what they do.” While this does happen, it is the exception rather than the norm, and success stories are often publicized to try and sell this false notion of agency within a rather restrictive system.

Basically, what this story is saying is: if you want to be “you,” get to a factory, fast-food restaurant, field or bathroom, make some money, and then, if you still have time and energy, dedicate some time to yourself. Doable, but if we start to bring in other aspects such as the desire to have children, unexpected emergencies, and the overall rising cost of everything, this dream starts to become a bit hazier and harder to see becoming a reality.

At this point, you might be asking: So what? I’m still not seeing it. What’s so bad about working in a factory or a restaurant or farm so that you can earn some money for the more important things in life? At surface level, perhaps nothing, but let’s look at the next question “What do you do?” is really asking.

What do you produce?

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This might seem like a rather unrelated question to what we are talking about, especially since very few jobs nowadays actually produce something, but it connects more than you might think. To highlight this, I want to walk through a really simple understanding of our global economy:

  1. Farmers produce food
  2. To get food, a factory worker produces a good for a wage
  3. In order to pay that wage, the factory owner needs first to provide the materials for the good and then sell it. In other words, the factory owner needs inputs and then he or she needs demand. For necessities, the demand is natural and we skip to step 5. For non-essentials, the factory owner needs some help and goes to step 4
  4. Marketing, advertising, and the media produce demand by bombarding us with images and messages convincing us to “need” what is being made in the factory. These individuals are also earning a wage, which they are using to purchase both needed and unneeded goods.
  5. The factory owner transports the good to the person buying it.
  6. Public education, from primary to university level, teaches people how to do the tasks needed to make steps 3, 4, 5, and 7 possible.
  7. The rest of society cleans everything up and tries to rectify the social or environmental consequences stemming from steps 1-6.

There are a few key things to draw out of this crude yet effective model. The first is the implicit need for natural resources. Steps 1 and 2 cannot occur without mining, deforestation, and extraction. Furthermore, much of the things we do in steps 3-7 require the use of goods made from natural resources. Whether it’s the oil in a freight truck, the precious metals for our computers, or the wood for our desks, everything comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the Earth, obviously.

However, the effects of our natural resource dependence go beyond environmental concerns. Since we are dependent on these material goods for everything from acquiring food to entertainment, those who control those materials ultimately control everything. In other words, as has always been the case in history, those with land run the show. Since the concept of private property is ingrained in our collective consciousness, this is not likely to change. And when you add on top the ability of the wealthy to multiply their wealth without reinvesting anything into society (think Wall Street), our dependence on this overly-powerful group of people becomes starkly clear, and we can start to see society stratifying.

So when indigenous communities lose their land because of a new mine or residents of US inner cities are denied quality education because of budget problems, this isn’t just “bad luck,” but rather the result of a system relying on consolidating everything in the hands of the few and generating inequality to prevent us from focusing on the real cause of our problems. In other words, inequality is built into the way we do things. Some argue inequality is a necessary evil to help provide incentives for action; if everyone were the same, we would never move forward. While it might be impossible to have true equality, this reliance on inequality as the engine of progress does nothing more than promote competition.

To see this, we need to give some attention to our reliance on full employment. If you flip on the news, you will surely hear something about unemployment rates or job creation. We are taught, or better yet told (very few people can truly understand the way economists think), society works best when everyone is working. Well since we know everything we do, in some way or another, is based on the production and consumption of natural resources, this needs to be alarming. First, the industrial world is very much the minority on this planet and look at what we’ve done to it. Can you imagine a world where every country was producing and consuming like the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan, China, etc.? Second, the inherent inequality in our way of doing things promotes competition and maximization. No matter where you are on the income scale, there is always someone above you and below you—there is always someone to compete with. You may have little ambition to be the person above you, but you certainly do not want to be the person below you. This pushes you to do all you can to maintain your current situation—it forces you to compete to avoid “losing” and falling down. But this competition manifests itself in ugly ways. It isn’t just us trying to be the best to get better jobs, but also the ways in which we reinforce a system where there will always be someone below us. When we consider the massive sums of money being moved around the world every day, it becomes clear that equality is entirely possible. It doesn’t exist because we do not really want it, for every move forward by someone below us feels like a step backward for us. With a full employment system, the pressure to find work that provides economically and enriches personally causes us to subconsciously support the inherent inequalities and competition generated by a system based on the production and distribution of material goods.

What’s more, our “globalizing” world has upped the ante and made competition far fiercer. You are no longer competing for a job and access to a certain standard of living with those in your town, city, or even country, but rather with those in towns, cities, and countries all around the world. The emphasis on competition and individual maximization paints a bleak picture for promises of coexistence and collaboration in the future. How can we ever expect to get along if we see, at least from an economic point of view, those around us as competitors instead of colleagues?

This brings us to the key point:

Our economic system is both environmentally unsustainable and socially destructive.

But, before I go too far, I want to make one thing clear: this is not an argument for communism. Communist thinkers went down this path and thought making the means of production (land, materials) public could eliminate these inequalities and bring society out of this state of perpetual exploitation. This failed miserably. Why? For many reasons, but because production remained at the core of Soviet activity, income inequality persisted. While further research would be needed, I suspect this condition combined with other social, political, and economic factors to bring the communist state down from within.

This is not to lash out against the concept of work, or even production. We do need things, and producing them will always be one of our principle functions. However, I do think there is a conversation to be had about working for the sake of working. Instead of it being a means to an end, or a way to provide life and occupation, it has become the very essence of our existence. This places our self-determination in the hands of our production and consumption of material goods, constructing and reinforcing competition and inequality through our search to maximize our efforts. Since there is not enough for everyone to have the maximum, we end up fighting over resources for absolutely no reason. We are constantly living on the edge—in alert,  worried someone will come up from below and take away all we hold most dear. A rethinking of work to be focused on what the work adds to society instead of what it provides the individual would allow us to put all our efforts, abilities, and creativity towards actually solving the problems we face, and could do a lot towards improving the overall health of society. Currently, our emphasis on work for wealth creation means much of what we do is simply creating and exacerbating the problems we want so desperately to solve, leaving underfunded and understaffed individuals and organizations to try and clean up the problems created by our own efforts to progress.

global inequality chart
Here’s a snapshot of global inequality. Essentially, 20 percent of the world’s population controls over 80 percent of the wealth in the world. No wonder no one can get along; the wealthy take their share and the rest of the world is left fighting for scraps. Unfortunately, this data is global, meaning nearly the entire Western world would fall into that first category. Since life for much of the middle class is becoming more difficult, it is only logical we are so unwilling to give up a piece of the pie to others. As long as we maintain this system of competition, our hopes of getting along are grim.
Global inequality table
Some more figures on the reality of global inequality. The wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s richest countries makes between 2000 and 4000 times more than the poorest 20 percent of the poorest countries. This may be presenting the extremes, but it indicates the severity of global inequality. When we consider how it feels to be lower-middle class in some of these richer countries, we can see why our way of doing things does not foster collaboration and assistance, but rather competition and in-fighting.

Source: https://www.unicef.org/socialpolicy/files/Global_Inequality.pdf 

So what can we do?

March into work tomorrow, stand on your desk, and shout, “That’s it, I’m done!” Then, all the world’s problems will be solved, right? Of course not. I am not even naïve enough to believe that. We depend on our jobs, and they provide us with a way to build a life. However, there is space to begin imagining a system of doing things not based on maximization, competition, and full employment. There are countless people out there doing wonderful things, but their efforts are crowded out by the infinite others trying to make their own way.

Reducing our dependence on material goods is an effective way to start. Our work, and the global networks supporting it, is designed to produce and distribute material goods. If there was significantly less demand for these goods, the system would have to dramatically change. Essentially, if we can learn to be happy with less, there will be less of an incentive to fight. We might not be so apt to dismiss the views and beliefs of another if we weren’t worried ours were going to be silenced, and we might not be so reticent to lend others a helping hand if we didn’t see it as losing out.

Living with less requires finding pleasure in non-material pursuits, knowing oneself, and being conscious of all actions, making sure to understand why they are being performed. The road to reducing the stress and suffering brought on by determining identity and self-worth through work begins not by abandoning the work, but rather by rejecting the role of material goods in satisfying these fundamental human needs, allowing us to depend less on wages, and ultimately on work itself.

Willingly giving up that which we fear being taken is our greatest source of power against the unequal system we operate in. It’s like standing up to the bully, showing him he doesn’t bother you. It takes the wind from his sails and renders his efforts to intimidate ineffective. Reevaluating the way we think about work is a critical first step towards imagining a society with true equality

So let’s get back to work, there’s plenty to be done. But while we do that, let’s look around for the human spirit and follow it to freedom, pushing away all that keeps it quiet.

What do you think? Do we place too much emphasis on work? How could we progress while working less? Feel free to comment and get a discussion going, and as always, if you liked the thought experiment we did here, pass it along so we can keep talking.