Tuesday, May 31, 2022

"What Do You Do?"

Last night I spent the evening at a Memorial Day barbeque in the company of several people I had never met before. We asked one another "What do you do?" which is our culture's shorthand for "What to you spend your weekdays working at, which is ultimately the question, "How do you go about acquiring food, clothing, and shelter?"

This dawned on me when one of my new acquaintances answered, "I don't do anything. I'm retired, just living off the fat of the land."

Of course, this man spends his days doing something. As we chatted, he mentioned grandchildren, golf, and gardening, he talked of travel and hiking. All of these things meet my definition of "doing," yet in his mind, in our collective mind, he's an idle man. In this, he is very much like most of the children I've known.

Indeed, this may well be the most decisive dividing line between children and adults. Kids just don't take work all that seriously, whereas for most of us grown-ups it's the center of our lives. Even if we love our jobs, we envy the kids their freedom, meanwhile we grind our teeth and wring our hands when they show any sign of being lazy, which is to say unproductive. We gripe that today's youth feel "entitled," that they don't seem to understand that they must work for their food, clothing, and shelter. We worry that our children are directionless, that they lack grit, or that they are more interested in their friends than their school work. These are all concerns, I would assert, related to answering the question "What do you do?"

Of course, in many cases it is illegal for children to contract to do proper work so we assign them chores -- some parents even pay their kids for completing them -- or we re-define school as a work place with grades as the paycheck. It's not the same, and the kids know it, because at the end of the day, they can't exchange their grades for their basic necessities. They see our re-framing for what it is: a flat-out lie. The consequence for not getting your chores or school work done is, at worst, punishment, whereas actual productive work, the kind of thing we say when someone asks us adults what we do, is life or death stuff.

Years ago, I went through a phase where I consciously avoided mentioning my profession when someone asked, "What do you do? I would say, "I read books" or "I like to cook," and my fellow adults would almost always follow up by asking, "Are you retired?"

It seems so natural to define ourselves by our work that we forget that for most humans throughout most of our history, work, the process through which we acquire the necessities of life, held a relatively insignificant place in the scheme of things. Marshall Sahlins' highly influential 1968 essay "The Original Affluent Society" made the point that despite claims to the contrary, technological advancement does not liberate us from work. Indeed, the story of modern man is one of spending more and more of our waking hours working. What we today call hunter-gatherers spent, typically, no more than two to four hours a day acquiring material necessities. Even Medieval serfs worked fewer hours in a day than we do and had far more holidays. One could argue that nearly every technological, political, or social development over he course of the past several centuries has resulted in us consuming more of our life in order to acquire food, clothing, and shelter.

I'm a big fan of food, clothing, and shelter, but if that's what it's all about, if that's all I "do," then what's the point? This is why we envy children. Life, as we've created it, is increasingly all work and no play. This is also why we worry that our youth won't have the grit or maturity required of our all-work-all-the-time society. What if they are so entitled that they think they get to continue playing?

This is all, however, just a story we tell ourselves. As David Graeber and David Wengrow write in their book The Dawn of Everything: "By framing the stages of human development largely around the ways people went about acquiring food, men like Adam Smith . . . inevitably put work -- previously considered a somewhat plebeian concern -- centre stage. There was a simple reason for this. It allowed them to claim that their own societies were self-evidently superior, a claim that -- at the time -- would have been much harder to defend had they used any criterion other than productive labor."

This is the story of colonization. Everywhere Europeans went, they found people who placed art, community, relationships, and play at the center of their lives rather than work. Instead of learning from them, we labeled them as backwards and lazy and sought to correct these flaws. In many ways, this is exactly what we do today with childhood, colonizing it with our grim story about work. We tell them, meanly, that school is their job, that learning is a matter of toil, that they can only play when they have done their work. But as we all know, the work is never done. For most children, when we open the door to school, we close the window of play, allowing it to only re-open again decades later, at life's sunset, the only time when it is acceptable to do "nothing" with our lives.

"What do you do?" We tend to relegate the question to holiday barbecues, but really, isn't it the question for every day. Isn't this the question we should be asking ourselves as we awake each morning? What will I do? There are valid answers other than work. I see it every day at preschool.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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