“So, what do you do?” As a late twenty-something I get asked this question by the load. I always infer that the questioner wants me to divulge something beyond, I exist or I make peanut butter sandwiches before bed. They’re after my profession – my remunerative contribution to society, which is a giant window into my identity as a person.

In a way, this question has been around since the dreamy elementary school days when “astronaut” was an acceptable response to: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But it seems there’s confusion between the verbs to be and to do that has somewhat collapsed the distinction between profession and person, between my job and my self.

I think this is why I’m unemployed. There’s a paralyzing fear that I’ll end up doing something I hate – something that’s not me – in order to eat, drink, and (if lucky) be merry. There’s a lot of work in life and I want jobs where meaning and money are married, where my identity is enhanced by what I do.

Inspired by this desire and Alain de Button’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I went to an avuncular Larry King-looking career counselor to lay bare my personal and limited professional history through interviews, tests, and questionnaires in exchange for “self-actualization” culminating in the discovery of my vocational destiny. I’m only two hours into the 50-hour process, but it got me thinking about the privileged nature of the aim itself.

Over a billion people work for less than a dollar a day and don’t have access to career counselors. My grandmother’s post-Depression mind wouldn’t even think about job satisfaction – any job is better than no job. De Button blames the bourgeois thinkers of the eighteenth century for transposing pleasure previously identified with leisure and hobbies onto work.

Wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place if work wasn’t toil and we all got to do what we wanted to do? Well, yes. But this “progression” in work has created a monster of anxiety: if I don’t do what I’m meant or want to do, if I’m toiling, then I’m missing a vital component to a fulfilling life. I’m missing part of what it is to be me.

Worse still, I wonder if happiness has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses. Those fortunate souls who have happiness or satisfaction in their work might just be propping up false hope that others can do the same in an economic system that isn’t set up for it. 

While it’s true that some people find enjoyment in their jobs, it’s not a necessary rule of work. And I think those that have fulfillment have it not because of but in spite of the demands of an economy that requires dual incomes, long commutes, over-40-hour workweeks, has immigrants working even longer hours for less money, treats humans as capital, and ravages resources. Achieving happiness in the workplace seems a depressing miracle in this context. No wonder so many people hate their jobs.

What do you think about work? I’m three months away from graduating and getting a job is on my mind. Geez magazine has it on theirs too in the upcoming work issue. – Christopher Paetkau, editorial intern

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