As one respondent put it:
“I think there’s so many dimensions of how our societal beliefs impact our relationship and thoughts about work. I think every single one plays a role. I think that it partially depends on who you’re surrounded by, which is out of your control, and who you surround yourself with, which is within your control, that makes a significant impact on how you pursue and understand work yourself”.
These beliefs can be good or bad, but regardless, they impact how we think and behave unconsciously. This section wants to draw these pressures and beliefs into the forefront, so we can be aware of how they shape our reality.
So in this section, I asked respondents about their individual experiences, and what pressures and beliefs they noticed we hold as a society about work. As you explore this section, I encourage you to reflect on some of the pressures and beliefs that shape how you look at work.
Throughout the interviews, I identified three major cultural beliefs that people have around work:
1. Work as identity
2. Hard work always pays off
3. Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life
The first, and biggest one, was that our identities have become conflated with what we do for work. Society seems to believe that where someone works, or what someone does for work, reflects on them as a person. When you go out to meet someone new, they always ask what you do for work. And while this can serve as a useful benchmark to see what someone is into, that’s not who that person is.
One respondent noted that our beliefs about work and identity started way back in elementary school.
“I feel like in school, we were drilled so deeply and intently to think of our job or occupation as our identity. I think that is literally so ingrained at every stage of K-12. I remember in elementary school, we went to this thing called BizTown, in the fifth grade, where we picked a job that we wanted to do and went into this little gymnasium type place as a field trip, where it was basically a mini town of sorts, and everyone had their job. I was the CEO of the radio station, but honestly, I didn’t even know what a CEO was at the time. And I think it really just speaks to just how ingrained US education and culture is with work and capitalism at large.”
Even into college, many respondents noted how the major system makes people think that this is your speciality. This is your identity.
“You know, when you’re in college, and you meet someone, the first question is always what’s your name, then what’s your major? And then you make assumptions about them based on that. Whether you want to be identified with your major or not, it’s not really a choice.”
This is far from limited to school, this identity building extends into all forms of social life. Every respondent offered an experience about being asked what they do, before anyone ever asks you what you do for fun, what’s meaningful to you, or what you’re passionate about.
However, many felt that this belief that work is or should be your identity could end up having negative repercussions for your work-life balance, or might lead you to draw less of a distinction between your own goals and the company’s goals.
As one respondent put it:
“I think that because work becomes a lot of people’s identities, it makes it so people are expected to work all the time. You know, if you don’t work harder and work later than everybody else, then you’re lazy, or not passionate about your work. I think that if I’m going and working my forty hours a week, I should not be expected to, or considered lazy, to not put in extra hours.”
If your work is your identity, then there can be pressure to choose a job that reflects well on you as an individual. Respondents seemed to struggle with the societal pressures of finding a prestigious job, or what is considered a “good job”.
However, this culture seems to differ across locations. A lot of other countries and cultures have different viewpoints on work than America. Maybe due to its title as the “land of opportunity” or its culture of work, these beliefs don’t necessarily persist across all people and cultures.
Three respondents noted:
“I think there’s a very strong sense of competition in America for getting certain jobs. And a lot of that is just because our identity is tied so much with our work. Just the idea of having an ideal job or being proud of your work is so important to our identities. Whereas, when I was growing up in South America, your job was just something that like, gave you the opportunity to financially support your family, but [what] mattered more was like who your friends were, who your family was, what kind of person you were, and your job was just like, a supplement to that.“
“I think work culture depends where you live. I used to live in Dallas, and I feel like work is a big part of your identity. Whenever you meet a new person, the first question that they ask you is: what do you do for work? It’s never what do you like to do for fun? So I feel like it really does depend on the city you’re in. I can definitely say in Dallas, people definitely look at their job as more of an identity thing. But like here in Colorado, I feel like because there’s a lot more activities and things to do. It’s not really as big of a question, which I think is interesting.”
“The US philosophy is that we’re living to work. But the European philosophy is that you need to work to live. I feel like in the US, we’re all about productivity. We’re all about like, you know, going the extra mile for career progression. And like, we have a pretty lame PTO program. In a standard year, you get 15 to 20 days. Whereas in Europe, you get 30 days. People get to go on vacation, they get to enjoy life a lot more.”
The next belief the respondents noticed was that hard work always pays off.
The interviewees noticed a societal belief that that everyone can make it big. That you can be the next Jeff Bezos, the next Elon Musk, the next Mark Zukerberg.
As one respondent put it:
“There’s also, for famous people, like the Elon Musk types, there’s the whole idea of like, any day, now you’re gonna get your big break, and make it big, and you’re going to be rich as hell. And that’s gonna be fantastic for you. But in reality, a lot of people are born into money, and that’s not the reality for everybody. Sometimes you can be working on the wrong thing, or at the wrong angle, and crazy success probably just won’t happen for everybody. I feel like I’m being pessimistic, but it’s true.”
Another respondent noticed something similar:
“I think something that I’ve noticed about the beliefs that people hold about society is that if you work harder, you will be rewarded for it. And I think that that’s completely untrue. I think that actually having more work life balance is what can propel you forward. I think it’s almost like a scheme to make people think that if they work hard, they’ll be promoted, because then you’ll take on so much more work.”
Lastly, a lot of the respondents felt like there was a cultural belief that work should be your passion. That everyone should love their job so much, that it’ll never feel like working.
“One big social belief about work I’ve noticed is the media being like: ‘I love my job, my friends are here, everything’s so great’. That’s the dream that you have for work. Like, you come in every day and every day is great, and you make millions of dollars and everyone’s all happy. But the reality is so far from that, in most places.”
This leads to people feeling alienated if they don’t present themselves as work as their passion. Most of them wanted work to be fulfilling in some way, but they felt pressure to act like work is their passion. This pressure can lead to people thinking that it’s wrong to set work boundaries or place themselves first.
One respondent put it this way:
“We’re always told: find a job you love and you’ll never work a day. Honestly, I could probably be on vacation my whole life and I guarantee at some point in time I’m not going to love it.”
Throughout the responses, we find that work should be a comfortable place, but you don’t necessarily need to be passionate about it, and you shouldn’t have to pretend to be.
“Before I went into the workforce, I thought that you should find what you’re passionate about and pursue it. But I haven’t really found that to be the case. It’s more of finding the place that you’re the most comfortable at and you’re the most interested in, but not necessarily what you’re passionate about. You should always find the healthiest place to work, you know?”
This leads to the side effect of not being able to talk about money. Like we saw before, adequate compensation was the most important thing to most people. When you present work as your passion, it has the byproduct of making salary discussion taboo.
Two respondents put it:
“I feel like salary talk doesn’t happen a lot. It’s like a taboo in American society.”
“I wish there wasn’t a stigma about talking with other people about salary and stuff like that. I think it’s a stigma that companies like having because they don’t want people talking about their salaries, because they don’t want people realizing that they’re getting paid differently than their colleagues. And then if you bring it up and say something, they want it to be like, “Oh, you shouldn’t be talking about that”, so that you’ll never bring it up and you’ll never ask for more money. Companies definitely don’t like you to talk about it. Because the less you talk about it, the less questions you ask about your salary, and then the less they have to pay.”
Question: What beliefs have you noticed in your own life in regards to work?
When thinking about this question, think about what dialogues we have around work.
Do you notice any in regards to
- Hard Work?
Who have you heard these things from? Maybe your:
- Peer group/ Social group
- The media
- Co-workers or superiors
Reflection: How do the beliefs you identified impact your own career path, or life in general?
This concludes Work. In this section, we discussed three things:
- Why do people work?
- What do we want work to be like?
- What are the beliefs, culture or pressures that impact how we see work?
And we find that people work because they want to be paid, fulfilled, and provided for.
People want to work for companies that care about them, in terms of workplace culture, growth, and adequate compensation.
And people find that there are so many pressures and beliefs that impact how we see work as a society. We should strive to think about our own beliefs critically, and understand how our beliefs impact how we work and live our lives.
Next, head on over to Advice. Here, I continue to compile responses from the interviews, and also invite you to record your own responses!