"WHAT DO YOU DO?"
Some of us have a prepared bullshit answer to that question - something vague yet glamorous, with a grain of truth to it, that casts our mundane everyday existences in a flattering light. You work in film, you say, neglecting to add that it’s for a catering company that sometimes supplies food to the sets of big-budget shoots. Some of us mention our artistic pursuits while leaving out our so-called “occupation” only to have our inquisitor push for just that - you play guitar? but what’s your day job? Some of us tell the unvarnished, uninteresting truth about our job as a copy editor for a non-profit that educates veterinarians about the existence of transgendered cats. Sure, it’s not what we went to college for, or what we wanted to do when we were growing up, but it pays the bills, and it’s mildly diverting, and we have some interesting stories from the office, would you like to hear them? You would, of course, because your job as a features editor at the gourmet dog food magazine probably has some interesting and amusing parallels, and maybe you can form a meaningful bond discussing your work stories, and maybe it’ll lead to something more. Say, are you free next Friday? My band is playing at Bowery Electric, and…
Your band? But I thought you were a features editor at Woof Magazine? What is this “band?” Meet the central pitfall of the WDYD paradigm - how it reduces your identity to your occupation, collapses who you are as a person into what you do to pay the bills in an attempt to streamline surface banter and maximize conversational utility. After all, would you have kept talking to that girl if she was a prison guard, or a janitor, or some other incompatible profession? You would? So the question does not maximize conversational utility at all? If you’re interested in that person, you were interested before you knew what they did to pay the rent and will be afterward - barring any truly horrifying, conversation-ending answers like “port-a-john technician” or “fluffer” (and even then, you can probably rationalize your way around them, depending on how much you want to get in their pants) -so why force them to summarize their identity by merging it with their paycheck? What purpose does this serve?
It’s not your fault, of course, that you’ve been conditioned to open conversations with this line. The Neoliberal Conversational Gambit is extremely effective at rewarding those who play the capitalist game and belittling those who don’t, and its innocuous tone renders it suitable for any situation and useful for near-constant reinforcement.
Most so-called “professionals,” particularly those outside of so-called creative fields, have an artistic interest or three, whether it’s acting, painting, music, or something else. These interests are looked upon with something between indulgence and scorn, as one might view the irrational whims of a spoiled child, and termed “hobbies.” Even the unpaid housewife who spends her free time sewing clothing for her kids is patted on the back briefly by her husband and then shown all the spots she missed while vacuuming.
Even self-help books seem to conflate “human being” with “human doing” - not that we should all strive to just hover in stasis, but there’s a wide gap for most people between what they are paid to do, which they would not do if not compensated, and what they would do of their own volition.
By forcing us to identify ourselves with our “occupations,” the favored greeding [Freudian typo] of neoliberal capitalism (What Do You Do i.e. What Purpose Do You Serve i.e. What Do I Stand To Gain From This Encounter) reduces one’s artistic or creative inclinations to the status of “hobbies,” something to be indulged but condescended to, as the whims of a child. Many public schools no longer even offer arts programs, while even private schools designate them “electives” and therefore expendable. Colleges in turn advise students to select majors based on the earning potential of a job linked to that degree - a problem compounded by the necessity of repaying the ever-looming ridiculously expensive student loans required to pay for a university education. As a result, we are watching come of age a generation that, left to their own devices, does little but play video games, watch TV, and get intoxicated. To avoid and ameliorate this problem it is imperative to separate occupation and identity. Doing something should not require either the carrot of money or the stick of punishment.
The average person, trapped in a job she does not particularly enjoy by economic factors, spends a good portion of her free time merely decompressing from job-related stress—by the time she feels sufficiently relaxed and clear-headed to tackle an artistic project or creative endeavor, the weekend is over and it’s back to the office/factory. A sort of tunnel vision develops as a coping mechanism to allow her to effectively compartmentalize her personal and professional lives and god forbid the twain should mix. Encountering friends while dressed for work brings on a sense of vertiginous shame. She may not even immediately recognize them, or they her.
The Neoliberal Greeting may occasion a sigh, a dancing-around-the-issue, or an outright lie in all but the person who has most successfully merged his personal and occupational identities. Some of these are the lucky ones who’ve managed to make a living doing “what they love,” but too many are those who’ve convinced themselves to love what they do merely because they spend so much time doing it that it would be cognitive dissonance to immerse themselves so thoroughly in an idea they hate, almost a form of temporal Stockholm Syndrome in which one is held hostage to the job and the system that hands out the goodies that allow one to live the good parts of one’s life. Others may answer the question with the contents of their artistic endeavors even if said art is not their “day job” - one would be hard-pressed to find an aspiring actress who admitted to new friends that she spent most of her time waiting tables - but she knows she is not being entirely truthful and the gap between what she IS and what she WANTS TO BE yawns ever wider, exacerbating her personal dissatisfaction and perhaps pushing her away from the artistic path and towards a more financially rewarding, socially acceptable “occupation” - one she doesn’t have to lie about to friends, one her family members will be proud of, one that will support her and her children in future years.
It may seem obvious but we need to remember that we are not the sum of what we are paid to do. Our culture needs to divorce itself from this cradle-to-grave conditioning, this linking of personal worth to paycheck size. Many of us have contributions to make that those in power do not value but those without power value immensely. What would life be without music? Without art? Yet compensation in these fields is limited only to the most “successful,” who all too frequently reach that status based on connections rather than merit. I wish I knew what the solution was. Patreon-type donations seem to be a step in the right direction. But on a personal level, we can start by not opening a conversation with that question unless we are interested in a genuine answer that reaches beyond the crass realm of economics.