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.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on May 15, 2011, in class and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi,

    I would love to chat with you. I don’t know how you can be so honest. It’s impressive. I’m an animal rights and women’s rights activist, a poor person with a doctorate, and a lot of other things that you mention. I rarely find anyone who I can relate to, and I would love to make your acquaintance.

    • Thank you for reading! Unfortunately, I have almost no time for real-time chat between work and commuting, but you’re very welcome here and you can find me on Twitter @queerscholar as well.

  2. My “real” job is the Orchestra Affairs Executive/Lead Singer/Bass Guitarist for (#1 Google ranked–something’s happening!) Song For All Seasons (www.groups.yahoo.com/group/songforallseasons)…WAY-Y-Y into the non-profit sector, and not at all by choice.

    Fortunately I love my low-paying McJob as a Barnes&Noble Bookseller.

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