When I was in second grade, we had a class fashion show in which we all dressed as what we wanted to be when we grew up. One by one, each of us got up from out seats (it was a very avant-garde fashion show in which the models didn’t walk a runway but rather sat in rows of chairs, facing the audience), walked over to a microphone, and read a little speech we had prepared. “I want to be a ballerina when I grow up”¦” I (and, it almost goes without saying, five other girls) said proudly into the microphone. I probably then waxed poetic on pirouettes, grand jetÃ©s, and pas-de-chats. Or if not that, then undoubtedly something very similar – I can’t be held accountable for complete accuracy; this took place about 22 years ago, so you’ll have to cut me some slack. Indeed, in spite of this ceremonious pronouncement (and the ceremonious circumstances in which it was made), I sit before my computer today not in a tutu and toe shoes but in typical business casual wear, drawing a very small salary. I’d wager that my five fellow ballerinas are doing the same. What happened?
Once a child hits a certain age, questions like, “And how old are you?” become too mundane and have to be replaced with more sophisticated inquiries if anything close to polite conversation is to be achieved. That’s when adults move on to things like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s meant to be harmless, but deep within that question lies a force so powerful that it’s capable of rooting itself in a child’s brain and staying there long into adulthood. The conversation moves forward in a harmless way:
Child: “I want to be a dog/scientist/cowgirl/ballerina/singer/astronaut”¦”
Adult: “Well, good for you.” [hands child a package containing a bag of kibble/microscope/cowgirl hat/ballet shoes/toy microphone/ticket to space camp] “Here’s a gift that will encourage you in your pursuits.”
And everyone comes away from it feeling good: the adult because she remembers what it was like to have dreams of being a cowgirl, and the child because she just got a new toy and has been encouraged in her lifelong dream.
Through the years, that same question recurs, though it begins to evolve a little bit. Instead of “What do you want to be?” it turns into something more along the lines of, “What do you want to do?” The change in verbs indicates that identity and professional activity are strongly related – possibly to the extent that they are considered one and the same. As time continues to pass, the question gets to be more frequent, and more urgent: “Well, what do you want to do with your life?” A response along the same lines as what you would have said as a child will no longer suffice, because now this is serious. What you do with your life determines who you are. Your job title will determine how people see you, and how you see yourself.
What happens, then, when job dissatisfaction sets in? Maybe you were wrong in assuming that the career path you chose would be fulfilling; maybe you were wrong in thinking your current job would be just fine “for now”; or maybe you don’t even know what it is you want to do, who it is you want to be. Accenture recently released a study in which 3,400 women and men in 29 different countries were surveyed about their levels of job satisfaction. The results? Fewer than 50% of employees are happy in their current position. That’s a lot of unhappy people and a lot of shattered childhood dreams. Survey respondents cited a variety of reasons for their dissatisfaction: feeling underpaid; a lack of opportunity for growth; no opportunities for career advancement; and a feeling of being trapped. If our jobs are a central component of who we are, as we’re led to believe when we’re growing up, then what are the implications of widespread job dissatisfaction?
In an economy where job selection is limited and the refrain, “Well, you should just be happy you have a job!” (how quickly the people who used to be so concerned with what you’ll do with your life change their tune!) is all-too-common, it’s hard to a) wish for something more, and b) maintain the hope that something more is out there. The consequences of conflating job and identity become clear, as the misery that results from the attitude that one is one’s professional life grows increasingly intense. The well-meaning family members who helped instill this concept of identity in you in the first place adopt a different tactic and tell you that work isn’t everything: “You need to learn to leave your work problems in the office,” etc. But when your work problems entail feeling like you’ve failed to live up to your life’s potential and that you may be stuck as an office drone for the rest of your life when what you really want to be doing is exploring space or writing successful cookbooks, letting the frustrations you face over the course of the eight to 10 hours (if you’re lucky) out of the day you spend focused on job-related concerns evaporate as soon as you leave your office is probably not a simple task.
How would rates of job dissatisfaction change if we were able to find a way to break the association we’ve created between who we are and what we do? If, when we met new people, one of the first questions we asked wasn’t, “What do you do?”, how would that affect our perception of them and their perception of themselves? Would we be any happier, or would we just be unhappy for different reasons?