Last week I read with my students an excerpt from Marilu Hurt McCarty's book Dollars And Sense: An Introduction to Economics (1985) about the connection between work and identity. The author claims that in western society most of us derive our sense of identity from our work: “we do therefore we are.” I feel that this statement is especially true about men. Quite often when we ask a man “who are you?” he will state his profession –“I am a dentist, ” or “I am an engineer.”
To explain the effect of work on one's identity Hurt McCarty gives the example of factory workers in the last century.With modern manufacturing jobs became simplified, and workers began to lose some of their self-identity associated with their job. This loss is what Karl Marx calls alienation: the separation of a worker from the product of his work. The passage concludes with a change, in order to combat this alienation some companies have started to introduce complexity back into the job.
As I approach my 59th birthday next month, I meet many men my age who no longer have a job, yet they still identify themselves as architects, programmers, engineers and so on. As long as a man works in his profession this identification is relevant and even helpful but when he doesn’t, it just adds to his frustration. This type of disconnection is not different from what Marx diagnosed as alienation and the effects are similar: it diminishes self- worth, reduces the sense of pride and leads to boredom, listlessness and even in some cases to depression.
Moreover, as if losing a job isn't traumatic enough, many men feel embarrassed bout being unemployed. We could see the tragic effects of alienation combined with shame in the poignant film Tokyo Sonata (2008) directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The film portrays the life of "salary men" in Tokyo who have lost their job. As they are too ashamed to tell anyone, even their family, about their plight, they get up every morning and leave the house dressed in a suit pretending to go to work. It is clear that these men have derived their identity solely from their job and once they stop working, it is as though they have ceased to exist. The film shows the disastrous consequences of holding on to what is no longer there. Without going into all the cultural aspects, we could see that those Tokyo men were paralysed and unable make a change. Thus they have become ghosts-like, invisible and with no identity.
Luckily in the west we haven't got to that point yet, but as life expectancy increases the ability to change is exactly what men need. Hurt McCarty mentions companies which attempted to over come alienation by bringing back more complexity to the job. I suggest that, in a similar fashion, men should bring in additional dimensions to their life. They should become proactive, reinvent themselves and find new directions. This is the time to leave behind past identifications which were only connected to what they did, and find new meanings which are connected to who they are now .
I suspect that Alexander Graham Bell had his male friends in mind when he came up with this beautiful aphorism: When one door closes another opens but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed one that we do not see the one which has opened for us.
It's time to make an entrance.