I was walking back to the House after getting my lunch recently and followed an older man down Montreal Street. He was wearing a fluoro jacket, beanie and tough, worn leather boots. The back of his jacket said, ‘Parking Warden’.
I turned off and thought I’d left him behind, but as I sat back at my desk, I saw him through the window across the road. He was standing beside a parked car, looking something up on his little machine. His back was turned against the wind. It was freezing outside. I turned back to my emails.
I have been thinking a bit recently about identity and work.
Why does what I do have such a big impact on who I am?
Are we more than what we produce?
How else might we be able to understand ourselves?
Who’s talking about this already?
I found one answer to that last question in Ezra Klein’s podcast. I stumbled onto him when searching for more interviews with Anand Giridharadas, whose Aspen Institute speech took my breath away (watch it, now). In April, Ezra interviewed two guests – Helen Ann Petersen and Derek Thompson. They had both written “viral articles” about Millennials, work culture, burnout and meaning, and he was so compelled by what they named, he wanted them both on the show at the same time.
While the interview was heavily geared towards a North American audience, and focused more on “burnout” as a consequential identity for young people coming of age in the post-GFC, heavily-privileged West, there were parts that still felt relevant. The thesis that captured me was that work has changed from a task we do to an indicator of who we are. Our paid jobs now symbolise our external values, put on display for all to see.
Petersen writes, “Students internalize the need to find employment that reflects well on their parents (steady, decently paying, recognizable as a “good job’) that’s also impressive to their peers (at a ‘cool’ company) and fulfills what they’ve been told has been the end goal of all of this childhood optimization: doing work that you’re passionate about.”
The pressure of ticking every box in this equation is part of my generation’s drive. We have been dutifully encouraged to find passion and purpose in our work, but to do that, it’s an ever-more-stressful “hustle” to get to the perfect job, and we’re unsure if we’ll ever find that sweet spot.
This drive I see in myself is exactly that. Work is not just what I do, it’s who I am, and I’m not sure why. I don’t know how to change that, but to try and combat this self-absorbed introspection, I’ve been trying to notice those the everyday heroes that I usually dismiss. People who work long hours while being paid very little and never thanked. People who are far more than their jobs, but aren’t treated like it.
What they do can be tough, banal, frustrating, and disrespected by people like me, and I never acknowledge that.
To the social workers – whether you are listening to a child tell their gut-wrenching story, agonising over whether to remove someone from their family for their safety, or spending your evenings writing up case files, your strong sense of self is humbling. You have backbones of steel and hearts of gold.
To the staff in the emergency departments, who have to react quickly and correctly every single time, with no preparation for what might come in the door. I hear your work can often be more pastoral than physical, and that you must deal with being spat on, kicked, punched and screamed at almost every day. You are saving lives and dealing with an inordinate amount of stress. Thank you for caring so deeply.
To those underpaid in our elderly care sector, who are looking after some of the most vulnerable and least respected members of our communities. Thank you for the compassion you show, and for your gentleness. You are easing the pain.
To those working with our most acute mental health patients. Many of us would not last a day in your work. Your capacity to see the future and good in everyone is a treasure. Thank you for not giving in to cynicism and looking after those we may struggle to understand.
To the teachers, who are forming the minds of children everywhere, often at great personal sacrifice. You are underpaid, overworked, understaffed and I don’t know how you keep going. Of the hundreds of children you might see in a lifetime, there will only be a handful that will remember you. Please hold onto this: for that handful, you will change their lives.
To the construction workers, who build our cities from the ground up, day in, day out. Your labour and energy are what makes our cities, roads and transport systems work. Without you, we could not get to where we need to go. You are made of tougher stuff than most.
To those who stock the shelves at our supermarkets. We all know what it’s like to need an ingredient and not be able to find it. It’s not a robot that does this for us, it’s you, and I am grateful for your consistency and commitment so that we can eat what we want to.
To our local dairy owners, who must open for very long hours, at the expense of spending time with their own family, in order to cover the cost of rent and living. Your lives are often put in danger by desperate people who want some quick cash without the consequences. I’m so sorry you are not all able to keep yourselves safe.
To those who watch over the men and women in prison.
To those who take away our dirty dishes in the mall food court.
To those driving our rubbish trucks.
To those performing the autopsies.
To those working with the displaced and homeless.
To those working in rehabilitation, who see the good underneath the hurt.
To those who clean our public toilets.
To those who have no job, have lost their job, who cannot find another job, who do not want another job.
And specifically, to that parking warden, who deals with daily verbal abuse and dirty looks, and works simply to make it easier and fairer for all of us to find a spot to park.
I’m sorry we don’t celebrate you enough. Thank you for showing up, over and over again.
We are all so much more than what we do. I hope we can take the time to remember it, for ourselves and each other.