The church I go to has just started a new sermon series all about mental health, following a short guide called “Livability”. Each chapter of this book looks at a figure from the Bible, and uses their story as a starting point to talk about a particular aspect of mental health such as depression or anxiety. As I have said before on the blog, I have personal experience with social anxiety and agoraphobia. Writing about my own experiences may be useful for others, and given that my church is focusing on it (hello to this part of my audience!) now is a good moment to do so.
In today’s post I want to want to talk about my least favourite question to be asked.
My least favourite question is a really simple one.
It’s a really common one.
It’s an innocuous looking one.
So what do you do for a living?
Really? That’s it? What’s so bad about that?
Everyone’s experience of life is different. For me, this really is the number-one worst question out there. Honestly, I dread it. Doesn’t matter where I am – the pub, at church, meeting friends-of-friends socially. Why?
One of the areas where I’ve struggled most with adult life is employment. I’m now mid-thirties. I’ve never yet had a full-time job.
After writing that last sentence, I automatically started adding other sentences to qualify and explain it. But I’ve decided to get rid of them to leave it on its own. Because this really cuts to the heart of the issue – the importance of employment is so fundamental within our culture that an explanation is needed. Without offering one, its at best a puzzle; at worst it might be assumed I’m a person of questionable character. (Gasp! Sharp intake of breath!)
I want you to keep reading, so I’d better justify myself a bit to put you at your ease. I’m neither useless nor lazy. Every year I have had some work – sometimes one part-time job (though perhaps very part-time), sometimes two. All in the secondary/tertiary education sector, so entailing a reasonable level of diligence and responsibility. But, taking into account my limitations – in particular social anxiety – as well as my skill-set, and up to now I have found it difficult to match to a full-time role, whether to do with education or something else.
Which is a problem. I’m far from idle the rest of the time – learning new technical skills, volunteering with several different charities in a small way, as well as producing useful things like this blog and the website that hosts it. However, the usual social expectation for a mid-thirties guy is having a full-time job. And this means answering questions about “what I do for a living” gets tricky. Obviously, jobs are about earning money. But in terms of social function they do more than that. Having a full-time job shows
- Something about your values: that you are willing to work to provide for yourself and others.
- Something about your value: if you have a job, it means someone considers you worthy of working for them. There is a level of accreditation just from having a job.
In other words, the social worth of having a job is partly in showing you are happy to be a “decent” or “contributing” member of society. This is one of two reasons I can think of that unemployment or underemployment is psychologically hard: your value as a member of society is immediately put under question. Perhaps this statement is a little over-negative. But the cumulative effect of giving an explanation of your circumstances to lots of different people, each of whom really is well-meaning, can lead to feeling rather under-siege and defensive. Particularly with the often-negative media coverage of people without full-time work lurking in the background (even though, in reality, the people whose lifestyles they decry are very much in the minority.)
(The other reason un-/under-employment is psychologically hard is simply that not earning enough money to provide for yourself and your dependants sucks. I am fortunate in that I have been able to live with family in economic circumstances that mean I have never had contact with the benefits system. But reading about the difficulties of those who have needed to use it, I am highly sympathetic as it is obviously far from easy.)
The upshot of this is that I find talking to people for the first time can be jolly awkward. When the subject of employment comes up, as it almost inevitably does, what do I say? Do I simply say that I have a job in the education sector? This feels awkward, as it gives the impression of something full-time, and I dislike being misleading. So do I say I have a part-time job in the education sector? But that brings up the questions of why-only-part-time, and what-else-am-I-looking-for. Which is immediately a can of worms. I have come to accept that I can’t expect to get a full-time role in the short term. It may happen – in which case, great! – but I can’t rely on it. But I don’t really want to tell my whole life story, explain about issues with anxiety and so on, right when meeting someone for the first time.
So when I meet new people I feel this question hanging over me, and am embarrassed and sheepish. What I say depends on who I’m talking to. Sometimes I give a response like “I have a part-time job writing maths teaching materials for secondary/tertiary level students.” Not a bad answer. If I’m feeling less confident, I just say something more evasive like “Not very much at the moment.” Which actually gets some hilarious responses. I went to a social event a couple of years ago that was well-attended by some people from my old school. Now, I have always been particularly good at maths and physics, which got me marked out as a smart cookie – someone really going places. The idea that at the moment I might not be very successful in career terms, and my “Not very much at the moment” might be based on awkwardness, embarrassment and shame… didn’t seem to compute. They assumed that my reticence meant I must be doing something I can’t talk about, so I must work for MI5 – which is hilarious, and naturally something I denied. But, they figured, if I worked for the security services then denying it is exactly what I would do… To this day I don’t know what they think. Some kind of bearded James Bond?
A guy who works part-time walks into a church. And everyone in turn says..
At one point in my twenties I joined a new church. For anyone who doesn’t know, the way churches usually work is that there is a formal “meeting” with a Bible reading, talks, prayers and songs, which is followed by a social time with tea and coffee, chatting and getting to know new people. Here’s an artists impression of how coffee-time chats went for the first few months:
Sunday 1, coffee person 1: Are you new here? Tell me about yourself, what do you do? Oh, you don’t have a full-time job yet? Well how I got my first one was…
What a friendly person! That’s a good sign.
Sunday 2, coffee person 2: Hello there! I don’t believe we’ve met. What’s you name? What do you do for a living? Ok. What sort of thing are you looking for?
Quite like last week. But I suppose I am new here.
Sunday 3, coffee person 3: Hello, my conversation is surprisingly like that of coffee person 1! But instead of telling you about how I got my first job, I’ll tell you about my son and how he got his current job.
I’m sensing a pattern.
Sunday 4, coffee person 1 (again): Hello! Good to see you here again today. How’s the job search coming along?
Someone talk about something else next week, please.
Sunday 5, coffee person 4: Hello, I haven’t spoken to you before. You won’t know this, but my favourite subject is talking about the details of my health problems. In detail. Whether anyone is going green or not. Now it all started when…. … … and then it fell out … and you’ll never guess the colour of … Why are the lights out? And where has everyone gone? No-one in this church ever listens to me…
That’s not what I meant by something else! Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!! TMI!
I’m being light-hearted, but to make a serious point. Everyone I spoke to meant really well. The questions they asked were perfectly reasonable – most people do have an occupation of some sort, so asking about it is a sensible way of getting a conversation going. They really were interested in finding out about me. Interested in sharing their stories with me, and giving advice, in the hope that my life would be improved as a result. But overall the effect was like coming up against a wall. Employment was a barrier. I had to cross it somehow in order to talk about other things, and so be a “proper” adult member of the church.
For this, and other reasons, I stopped going to church for a while – and when I did my attendance was sporadic. Eventually, the barrier was breached. For a couple of weeks the church ran a project. Volunteers with a can-do attitude were needed. After several days of using tools and wielding a paintbrush, I had shown I was willing to work hard, diligent and could produce a quality result. It was like passing an audition; suddenly I was able to talk about all sorts of things with the other men from church. And I felt much more like I belonged.
So what’s the take-home?
So there’s a few thoughts from my personal library of stories to do with employment and inclusion. Is there a lesson? I don’t think there’s just one simple one. But here’s a few ideas:
- When it comes to community inclusion, activities like “helping re-decorate a house before someone moves in” can be really helpful. I’ve been involved in this particular activity at least three times, and each time its really useful for getting to know new people. The value isn’t just in the end product – though that is the goal. But in the process of achieving this product, they function like auditions. Does someone turn up, work hard, and to a good standard? Its a chance to show what you are made of when, for some reason, you can’t do this so easily in words.
- Sometimes, even when everyone means well, social barriers can be set up accidentally. This is just something to be aware of.
- Employment is a particularly bad area for barriers as money is foundational – it’s needed for buying cars, houses, supporting a partner and children…. So to put up a wall on the subject of “jobs” can effectively mean putting barriers on these other things too.
- In my experience churches aren’t immune to the problem of accidental barriers. Being a “responsible” member of the community is part of a mature Christian life. For those who are in traditional job-for-life roles such as teachers, doctors and lawyers (who are hardly lacking in UK churches), appearing to satisfy this type of responsibility is pretty much locked in. But not everyone is in the same boat. For those of us who really struggle with employment, showing evidence of this kind of responsibility is much harder. Where there is a social expectation and you don’t appear to meet it, there is a danger of feeling second tier, or even being treated this way (sadly, there are cases I’m aware of where this has happened).
So there’s some of my thoughts on jobs and inclusion. Currently lots of people – I think over 6 million? – are on furlough due to the virus outbreak. Its possible that when things open back up there will be more unemployment, though I hope that doesn’t happen. But this is perhaps a good time to be talking about these issues.
So to quickly sum up the entire post: opening a conversation with asking about employment isn’t wrong per se. But because of the social factors involved the conversation can get tricky quickly. Next time you meet someone new, why not ask about their interests first?
Catch you in the next post!