The myth of identity-based work

17 October 2012 § Leave a comment

The New Republic‘s newest issue has an article about twentysomethings, and being a member of that group I gave it a read. It basically talks about how young people today are obsessed with the fact that they can’t get good jobs and whine all the time, and how their parents enable them by allowing this kind of behavior. Of course it mentions JJ Arnett’s emerging adulthood study, which some people think is a newly-discovered time of development for young adults arising in developed countries within the past fifty years, and some people think is a load of shit, but I don’t care about that. What I’m writing this for (maybe self-indulgently, but what isn’t really) is one quote that hooked into some inchoate stuff I’ve been thinking about lately:

These kids will take any job they can get. Identity at the bottom has to come from things that are not part of employment.

This quote is by Kathy Edin, one of the most vocal opponents of the emerging adulthood theory. She’s talking about the idea that EAs are looking for “identity-based work,” or work that fits them like an old t-shirt, that informs who they are and what is informed by them—basically a soulmate relationship to work. Her quote above is about lower-income kids, who are almost completely unrepresented in a lot of writing on emerging adulthood. These are the twentysomethings who do have kids, who are getting married, who will take any job they can get.

So this group of people is getting shafted by mainstream culture, yes, but when is the lower class ever really studied except as a weird oddity? History is written by rich people. But here’s the thing: in the age of the internet, especially with the near-infinite access to information and culture, no one will be able get identity-based work.

In fact, I think a lot of people seem to be missing the point. It’s not that there’s a new stage of life revolving around some quarter-life crisis, nor is there a new level of coddling by parents—at least that’s not the main thing that’s going on. The real game-changer here is the Internet, that tentacled beast, exponentially increasing our access to each other, culture, and information, practically overnight. Before the advent of the Internet, almost every job was “identity-based:” you were what you did, usually for years and years before retiring and being a retired “job-man.” We are reaching the age of a separation of identity and employ.

This is especially true of the entertainment industry. I think that within the century (a very conservative estimate), musicians are either going to have to tour nigh-constantly or get “day jobs,” basically turning that profession into an amateur undertaking. Actors and film makers will have to do something similar, making movies on the cheap, emphasizing story and character over spectacle. Writers already sort of do this, with blogging and social networking and spec work going out and all. There’s a rising trend of amateurism in the creative marketplace, but I think this is all for the very best. It’s going to force out all artists who are only in it for the money (there are a few of these, right?) and make creating truly a labor of love, because someone has to say something—and this will enrich the content immensely.

This works the other way, too. There’s been an increasing demand for creative thinking in “straight” jobs as well. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, all these people need to think creatively to solve problems and create value in their fields. What better way to do this than to develop a hobby, something outside of work that can be shared with others? Work and life will have a symbiotic relationship, but the days will soon be gone where you are what you do. We’ll be a lot of different things, and it’s going to usher in a new era of creativity and exploration that I think is incredibly exciting. But that’s just what I think.

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