What Do You Do?: Reflections on The Future of Jobs

I’ve changed jobs several times since the cancellation of the NPR show I hosted, News and Notes, until early 2009. While my journeys haven’t been easy, they’ve been instructive and in many ways positive. I’ve begun to reverse a decade of weight gain, losing 35 pounds last year… many more to go. I learned more about what skills I have; which ones I don’t; and how to build teams for short- and long-term projects, like the award-winning set of radio documentaries I did about the 2010 midterm elections.

While doing a cable news hit yesterday about the elections, I had a powerful talk with a freelance staffer who told me she’d nearly lost her house — but had, unlike so many others, been able to take advantage of the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP. The program has only served a fraction of the people who need it, but speaking to her was a great illustration of the ways in which government can help right this economy by addressing the needs of people whose income fluctuates, or plunges to zero.

One of the problems I see with the political discussion of the economy and jobs — including its refraction through Occupy — is that we have a symphony of different economic trends and we’re straining to hear each note.

  1. There’s the erosion of public employment. Private employment is rebounding but public sector continues to drop and to boost the unemployment figures.
  2. There are the ways technology is transforming the workplace, which is great for some (particularly skilled coders and entrepreneurs) but overall can exert a downward pressure on hiring in industries from manufacturing to healthcare.
  3. There’s the glut of college-educated people who find out the paper they’ve gotten is not going to win them a career or even a steady series of jobs.
  4. And then there’s the rise in people who are episodically employed, like the freelancer I met who nearly lost her home.

In the not so distant past, unless you had a catastrophic illness you could expect a certain consistency in employment once you’d reached a level of seniority in your field (i.e., past the “last hired, first fired” career years). With episodic employment, more people are building up debt or spending down their savings. Credit is harder to get, even for people who have good histories. Those factors make people more risk averse in the lives they build and institutions more averse to fund businesses and lend to homebuyers.

Then there’s the emotional aspect of work. In some countries, it’s impolite to begin a conversation with “what do you do?” In America, in many circles, it’s de-rigueur.

Perhaps in the near future, we’ll learn to turn that question around, and ask people what they are doing in their communities; in their families; in arts and culture rather than what industry they work in. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have work (and I certainly count myself in that number), the question “What do you do?” needs to be inverted, and our lives directed towards reflection about our larger purpose and goals.

About Farai Chideya

Farai has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her 20-year career as an award-winning author and journalist. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She contributes to print, public radio, and cable television; and she also hosts a series of town hall meetings in both New York and San Francisco, with New York Public Radio and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, respectively. You can see an archive of her 2010 midterm election specials -- which foreshadowed some of the current political and immigration debates -- at PopandPolitics.com, which she founded in 1995.

4 thoughts on “What Do You Do?: Reflections on The Future of Jobs”

  1. Mamacarp842000

    GREAT article! I’ve always disliked the question, “So, what do you do?” upon meeting someone in a purely social situation. That’s an acceptable question in a business networking environment, but not in a casual social situation. Hopefully, we are much more than our occupation/career. The things that are most important to me have very little to do with my career.

  2. Farai Chideya

    I grew up with a “what is your career” mindset. Well, that’s not exactly right but I went to a big name school and it was inculcated in me, as well as fostered (intentionally and unintentionally) by my family of strivers.

    Now, for example, I know my fiction writing may never make me the max dollar-per-hour. But it’s important to me and I will continue to do it. I will continue to travel. I will continue to read books that are not for work.

    As someone I met at a speech I gave about jobs and the economy said to me, “I may be unemployed, but I’m a free man.” He was older, thrifty, had savings, was not panicked. He left the job market too soon for his tastes. But he was centered.

    How many of us have overspent and don’t have that perspective? I myself am seeking much greater rigor in how I use money so that I can be, in the sense this man mentioned, a free woman.

  3. dani

    I am going through ‘episodic employment’ right now, as well as being a relatively recent graduate. It has made me very risk averse. I see this in my everyday actions as well as job prospecting. While I know things will get better with time and perseverance, I often find myself down and out and having difficulty getting back up. This article was well written and very relatable. Thanks for taking an abstract concept and breaking it down into a simple and straight-forward solution.

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