Chapter 10: Work Identity

Have you ever noticed how, when you ask someone “Hi, what’s your name, what do you do?”, they usually reply with something along the lines of “Hey, my name is Bob, I’m an accountant”, or “I’m an electrical engineer”, a teacher, a plumber, a sales manager, an insurance agent. Notice that you did not ask “What is your job?”. You asked “What do you do?”. People assume that is short for “What do you do for a living?,” which is even more revealing. When we are asked who we are, what we do, we immediately identify that with our job, because that is precisely what we believe it means. What we do is who we are, and for the most part, what we do is work. What else could we do? After all, we live in a society that is based upon the exchange of labour for income, and income determines our quality of life.

Since I was a kid I have been working to pay for what I wanted. At the beginning, when I was very little, that meant no more than helping out in the house, cleaning the porch and the dishes. They were small things, but they counted. My parents infused in me a sense that things should not be taken for granted, and that while some things are provided for, if I wanted something extra I should take responsibility and earn it. This sentiment has accompanied me throughout my life, and to this day I still think my parents taught me a very important lesson: that I should value people’s efforts, their work, and that if I want something I should roll up my sleeves and get to work. Not to complain, not to ask for it, but to earn it.

As I grew older I started doing more complex jobs, from polishing industrial materials to gardening; but I was also lucky enough to make use of my early passion for IT. So I would fix people’s computers, then manage small companies’ networks and build websites. I was 15.

By the time I turned 16, I was not really relying on my parent’s financial support. I won a scholarship for the United World College of the Adriatic, and moved away from home. Since then, I have always lived by myself, which is quite strange for an Italian (most of them live with their parents well into their 30s). I now have a Bachelor of Science, I graduated at a NASA Study Program from Singularity University, I started a company, and I have many years of working experience, both in national and international companies. I remember when I was 22, my boss entrusted me with representing the company abroad. He simply told me one day “Hey Fede, I need you to speak about the new software. Here’s the ticket, and here’s the address. I’m leaving now, see you in London in a few days.” The client was our biggest, as well one of the largest multinational corporations in the world, so I was kind of surprised that my boss placed so much trust in my abilities, especially since I was relatively young. At the time I was working as system administrator and IT manager. I then moved to another company and went on to create the Web and Media department, which lead to the creation of a team that effectively tripled the size of the company in a little over two years. This allowed for the transformation of a small video production business into a comprehensive web, media, and communication company, capable of competing in the international market with multi-million dollar businesses much bigger than itself.

The reason I am sharing this is not to try and impress you. Far from it. In fact, my resumé is quite unremarkable (I pale in comparison to many young entrepreneurs who have founded multi-billion dollar companies in their twenties). I simply wish to give you some perspective before I elaborate on the next points. I do not want you to think that these ideas come from someone who has never worked a day in his life and hence could not possibly appreciate the value of work.

1.1 Work Ethic, Work Utility

I think that having a work ethic is very important. And it is precisely for this reason that I think work is becoming meaningless nowadays. “Work hard and you will be rewarded”. That is what people say, and I generally agree. But something is missing from this picture. We value work, per se, and we think people should work. But, have we ever wondered about its utility? Ask yourself what is the value of the work you are doing? Does it help other people? Does it make you happier? Does it contribute to improving our society in terms of culture, health, efficiency, empathy, compassion, creativity, and liveability? If I work just for the sake of it, then I am no more than a mere instrument. A puppet. A robot that blindly follows orders.

Let me give you a practical example. I am a middle-age woman who works in an arms factory. I build cluster bombs. These bombs are not used to fight terrorists or to stop armies (whether such goals are legitimate or not is a matter for a separate discussion).

They are designed to horribly disfigure and mutilate anybody who is unfortunate enough to stumble upon them.1 Many of the victims are innocent children, who at one moment are playing in a field with their friends, and the moment after that accidently detonating the bomb and having their leg blown off. I know that. But I am still doing my job. Am I doing a good job? Am I doing a useful job? Do you think that I am evil? What if I told you that I have two children and the youngest one is sick, but the government is not helping enough. I could not afford to pay for her medication, so I looked everywhere for a job, but all I could find were some part-time jobs, and I was not making nearly enough money to pay for the astronomical medical bills. So I decided to come here instead. It is a horrible job, I know. I hate this job, and I hate myself for what I am doing. But they pay well, and my children can live. I do not see any other choice. Do you still think I am evil?

I used an extreme case to illustrate the point, but there are countless examples that are more subtle, and yet much more insidious. Suppose I am a lawyer. I would like to work on cases of child abuse, workers rights, class actions against big industries that are polluting the environment and killing thousands – things that could help alleviate the pain and suffering of many people. But, working on these cases does not pay well, so I turn to working for multinational corporations. I become a patent troll, harassing small companies that try to democratise access to cheap medicines. Cases like this one are not the exception, they are the norm.

The idea that if you work hard and do your best you will eventually succeed is a compelling and romantic notion of the work ethic. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is no more than an illusion.

It used the be different and sometimes you can find inspiring exceptions. But these virtuous examples are becoming increasingly out of the ordinary. In my life, I have travelled to more than thirty countries. During my journeys, I would stop and meet people who live on the streets instead of passing by them. I talked to them, heard their stories, shared food, and sometimes even slept beside them, on the sidewalk, or in front of a train station. The homeless, the beggars, the thieves, the drunk, the criminals. They are all symptoms of a system that failed to give them a fair chance. The notion that these people just did not try hard enough is insulting, to say the least.

While I do not excuse or condone criminal activities or acts of violence, I think failing to recognise that people are driven to take drastic actions by the circumstances in which they live is intellectually dishonest, and also shows a complete lack of empathy. Let us assume for a moment the proposition that these people were slackers and thieves to begin with and that they deserve the situation they find themselves in. If that is the case, why is there such an uneven distribution across nations of slackers and criminals? And even within nations, why is there an unequal distribution across different regions, towns, and neighbourhoods? Why is it that every carefully conducted study shows a positive correlation between the lack of access to education and economic justice, and an increase in violent behaviour? Why is it that these negative symptoms can be seen most pronounced in poor countries, as well as in rich, but very unequal countries?

During my travels and my studies I was lucky enough to meet people from literally half the world (about a hundred countries). I was exposed to their cultures and I learned extensively from their stories. The film they show is pretty much the same as the one I described above. There might be slightly different cut-scenes and photography, but the screenplay is very similar.

I was at a café just recently, and I stumbled across a black man who was trying to sell me some cheap and useless stuff so that he could make enough money to get by. I got a pack of lighters (even though I do not smoke), offered him a coffee, and had a talk with him. Before sitting at the table he looked like an uneducated man, with no aspirations and no interests in making his life worth living. But as soon as we sat down and I treated him like a person – like an equal human being – something very interesting happened. He dropped the act. Suddenly the guy, who was having difficulties articulating a few words just seconds earlier, became a fluent speaker of three languages. He told me he came to Italy as an illegal immigrant from Nigeria, where he studied economics at university and graduated, but could not find any job in the country. Nigeria is widely known as one of the most corrupt states in the world,2 where even janitors have to bribe officials in order to get a job. The integration process through legal means in Italy was close to impossible, and inaccessibly expensive. He came to the country after weeks of dangerous travel through Africa, only to reach the coast of the Mediterranean sea, embarking on a near-suicidal journey on an inflatable boat, during which half of the passengers died. Since then, he has been trying to find a job, with no success. Racism, and fear of the unknown are still rampant, even here in Europe. Eventually, he learned to earn enough for himself and his family back in Africa by begging for money on the streets and selling cheap goods that nobody needs. He tried working a proper job, but nobody wanted him because he did not have papers (and because most people here in Italy are racists). And there was no way for him to get papers unless he had a job. Now let me ask you this: What choice did he have exactly? And how does this relate to the idea of the “work ethic??? Stories like this one are far from being isolated cases. Rather, they are becoming increasingly the norm. Some have it worse than him and resort to organised crime. They are forced into this behaviour by the inadequacy of the economic systems, across borders, to take care of their citizens.

Even regular citizens, who just happened to be born in poor families, do not have it much better. Statistics also confirm this scenario: social mobility has been declining significantly over the past years in most countries, particularly in the industrialised world. The United Kingdom and the United States have, in fact, the lowest social mobility among the OECD countries, as confirmed by studies from the London School of Economics3 and the Journal of Social Science and Medicine.4 The poor will stay poor and the rich will stay rich, no matter how hard they try.

Notes

1Cluster munitions are prohibited for those nations that ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions, adopted in Dublin, Ireland in May 2008. The Convention entered into force and became binding international law upon ratifying states on 1 August, 2010, six months after being ratified by 30 states; as of August 2011, a total of 108 states had signed the Convention and 60 of those have ratified it. However, these type of bombs are still used extensively in wars and internal conflicts around the world. They are either produced and distributed by states that did not ratify this convention, or they find their way around through the black market. I could also have used another example, but I think you get the point.

2Corruption Perceptions Index 2010: In detail, 2010. Transparency International.
http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2010/in_detail

3Intergenerational mobility in Europe and North America, Blanden J., Gregg P., Machin S., 2005. London: Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.
http://cep.lse.ac.uk/about/news/IntergenerationalMobility.pdf

4The problems of relative deprivation: why some societies do better than others, Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett, 2007. Social Science and Medicine 2007; 65. pp. 1965-78.
http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/docs/problems-of-relative-deprivation.pdf


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