Class vs. Income and Claiming Identity
I was reading an old blog post the other day about the whole “it’s rude to ask what someone does for a living in Europe” thing, and I got to thinking about the difference between class/family background and income/occupation/career. It is true that what you do is a pretty common way to identify oneself right off the bat here in the US, but what’s the alternative? The most obvious one I could come up with is where you come from–hometown, family name, background. The difference between those two identities, of course, is that one is dealing with class and upbringing (which you can’t control) and the other is dealing with income and occupation (which you, supposedly, can).
Part of our American individual responsibility rhetoric is the idea that it’s only up to us whether we succeed or fail in our careers. Supposedly, occupation should be a more egalitarian way to define oneself, rather than speaking directly about class or family ties. But is that really the case? Personally, I feel a pressure around the occupation question, because I grew up in a middle to lower middle class family in the South, did very well in school, and was expected to far exceed my parents’ incomes. I am more educated than any of my family members, and live in a large urban area in a more affluent part of the country now. However, I make far less money than expected, and I find myself defining myself more by what I want to do than by what I am when someone asks about career. I often define myself as a blogger, writer, and activist, obscuring my full-time paying job. Sometimes I say that I work in the “non-profit” sector, but rarely mention my job title, because it’s more a means than an end.
I do wonder if the tendency to identify ourselves by our careers contributes far more to stress than some people realize. How many of us use an aspirational definition of what we are, or speak about our education rather than our job, or our sector rather than our occupation? How many feel ashamed by a job description? I do think that there is a tendency to see what we do as a direct reflection on our job skills and what we have to offer as professional people, rather than an accident of circumstance, what was available in this economy when we applied, or what we grew into as we went from job to job. I don’t necessarily think that defining ourselves by class is any better, but I do wonder what the attendant pressure of that definition would be.