Stripping Identity From Work
Commentary: It was an advertisement for a flower farm this time. There were openings for studio and field assistants and delivery drivers, both full-time and part-time positions. There's always a mental flash when I see a job posting that sounds interesting but is completely out of my wheelhouse: "Wouldn't that be a nice change of pace?" I don't ask, "Is that who I am?"
There's a myth surrounding the job-hopping millennial. But now that we have employees quitting in droves — a good deal of them millennials, but not all — shouldn't we ask what a job or career means when we know that the system doesn't build security, value or purpose for who we are?
I've always had an issue with your job and/or your career being the foundation of your identity. Of course, that is the key question at any type of first-time meeting or networking event: "What do you do?" so that I can quickly determine your class, ambition and ability to fit into the needs of my life. Dreadful.
I once read a slightly antithetical approach that I like to whip out during low-stakes encounters, which I feel happen more and more at this point in my later 30s. Instead of the traditional "Where do you work?" ask: "Where are you kept all day? No, really, where are you located?"
You'll get some of the same information and weird boasting exclamations of, "Oh, I am so incredibly busy, my car is my office." Or you'll get someone with that faraway look who talks about the endless rows of empty concrete they see out of a sliver of window from their cubicle. There is so much about their perceived identity that I try to wade in after that question. It's that initial dive into a conversation that sometimes gives an idea of their comfort in the overworked system or a glimpse at hope for more. It's a spark that I've seen die too many times.
I once worked where the cubicles were moved against the floor-to-ceiling windows due to rearranging for repairs. Employees could look out into a nice tree-filled courtyard and see the squirrels playing while people were walking by below. The employees loved it. They advocated for keeping the desks there, begging to keep the natural light as they worked on their computers and not be pulled back under the fluorescent lights.
The top-tier boss moved them back. Without proof for any dip in productivity, the reasoning was that it must be too distracting for them and their work.
My generation has learned the unsaid whispers in job applications' language that foretell this type of behavior. For example, we dread the line about "We'll treat you like family," which translates in practice to "We'll work you harder than those who actually care about you ever would. Then we'll guilt you into believing that self-sacrifice is for the good of the team when it's really for the bottom line."
That said, jobs can be like family. There's the wild-haired uncle who has stopped caring who hears him on the phone in his cubicle. There's the exuberant but witheringly gruff lady who doesn't mention when her longtime lover dies, but you can see the shift from gruffness to sadness. There's the boss who gives you tips about your career — and maybe awkwardly comments on who you bring to the Christmas party — for a decade and who then ends up deciding that because you've pushed too hard for change, they have no need for you in their future.
As an only child, the building of my family was fluid, but I knew that I wanted to love my friends deeply. Yet I know they are never the whole of my identity, much like jobs have never been either, even if I want to pour myself into what I do.
When employers call the herd back to where they were kept, many may look instead at planting new roots, even in the currently barren fields. Our identities are crafted through more than our labor. They're crafted by what we provide for one another and how much we can use the deep love we have, or want to grow, to build a world with the security and value that employers have failed to give us.
Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She is also the Executive Director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and can be contacted at email@example.com. To find out more about Cassie McClure and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.