This lovely essay explores the most common question that modernity prompts strangers to ask each other: What do you do? The author is the philosopher Alain de Botton, who explains that this question is freighted with moral judgment. In a meritocracy, what you do for a living is not only who you are; it’s also where you stand in the hierarchy of public esteem. Are you somebody or nobody, a winner or a loser? Should I suck up to you or should I scorn you?
The argument here resonates with a number of recent pieces I’ve posted here about the downside of the academic meritocracy. At the core is this problem: when we say the social system is responsive to merit rather than birth, we place personal responsibility on individuals for their social outcomes. It’s no longer legitimate to blame fate or luck or the gods for your lowly status, because the fault is all yours.
On Asking People What They ‘Do’?
Alain de Botton
The world became modern when people who met for the first time shifted from asking each other (as they had always done) where they came from – to asking each other what they did.
To try to position someone by their area of origin is to assume that personal identity is formed first and foremost by membership of a geographical community; we are where we are from. We’re the person from the town by the lake, we’re from the village between the forest and the estuary. But to want to know our job is to imagine that it’s through our choice of occupation, through our distinctive way of earning money, that we become most fully ourselves; we are what we do.
The difference may seem minor but it has significant implications for the way we stand to be judged and therefore how pained the question may make us feel. We tend not to be responsible for where we are from. The universe landed us there and we probably stayed. Furthermore, entire communities are seldom viewed as either wholly good or bad; it’s assumed they will contain all sorts of people, about whom blanket judgements would be hard. One is unlikely to be condemned simply on the basis of the region or city one hails from. But we have generally had far more to do with the occupation we are engaged in. We’ll have studied a certain way, gained particular qualifications and made specific choices in order to end up, perhaps, a dentist or a cleaner, a film producer or a hospital porter. And to such choices, targeted praise or blame can be attached.
It turns out that in being asked what we do, we are not being asked what we do, we’re being asked what we are worth – and more precisely, whether or not we are worth knowing. In modernity, there are right and wrong and answers and the wrong ones will swiftly strip us of the psychological ingredient we crave as much as we do heat, food or rest: respect. We long to be treated with dignity and kindness, for our existence to matter to others and for our particularity to be noticed and honoured. We may do almost as much damage to a person by ignoring them as by punching them in the stomach.
But respect will not be available to those who cannot give a sufficiently elevated answer to the question of what they do. The modern world is snobbish. The term is associated with a quaint aristocratic value system that emphasises bloodlines and castles. But stripped to its essence snobbery merely indicates any way of judging another human whereby one takes a relatively small section of their identity and uses it to come to a total and fixed judgement on their entire worth. For the music snob, we are what we listen to, for the clothes snob, we are our trousers. And according to the predominant kind of snobbery at large in the modern world, which is job snobbery, we are nothing but what is on our business card.
The opposite of a snob might be a parent or lover; someone who cares about who one is, not what one does. But for the majority, our existence will be weighed up according to far narrower criteria. We will exist in so far as we have performed adequately in the market place. Our longing for respect will only be satisfied through the right sort of rank. It is easy to accuse modern humans of being materialistic. This seems wrong. We may have high levels of interest in possessions and salaries, but we are not on that basis ‘materialistic’. We are simply living in a world where the possession of certain material goods has become the only conduit to the emotional rewards that are what, deep down, we crave. It isn’t the objects and titles we are after; it is, more poignantly, the feeling of being ‘seen’ and liked which will only be available to us via material means.
Not only does the modern world want to know what we do, it also has to hand some punitive explanations of why we have done not well. It promotes the idea of ‘meritocracy’, that is, a belief in a system which should allow each person to rise through classes in order to take up the place they deserve. No longer should tradition or family background limit what one can achieve. But the idea of meritocracy carries with it a nasty sting, for if we truly believe in a world in which those who deserve to get to the top get to the top, then by implication, we must also believe in a world in which those who get to the bottom deserve to get to the bottom. In other words, a world which takes itself to be meritocratic will suppose that failure and success in the professional game are not mere accidents, but always and invariably indications of genuine value.
It had not always felt quite as definitive. Premodern societies believed in the intervention of divine forces in human affairs. A successful Roman trader or soldier would have looked up and thanked Mercury or Mars for their good fortune. They knew themselves to be only ever partially responsible for what happened to them, for good or ill, and would remember as much when evaluating others. The poor weren’t necessarily indigent or sinful; the Gods might just have never looked favourably on them. But we have done away with the idea of divine intervention – or of its less directly superstitious cousin, luck. We don’t accept that someone might fail for reasons of mere bad luck. We have little patience for nuanced stories or attenuating facts; narratives that could set the bare bones of a biography in a richer context, that could explain that though someone ended up in a lowly place, they had to deal with an illness, an ailing relative, a stock market crash or a very difficult childhood. Winners make their own luck. And losers their own defeat.
No wonder that the consequences of underachievement feel especially punishing. There are fewer explanations and fewer ways of tolerating oneself. A society that assumes that what happens to an individual is the responsibility of the individual is a society that doesn’t want to hear any so-called excuses that would less closely identify a person with elements of their CV. It is a society that may leave some of the losers feeling – in extremis – that they have no right to exist. Suicide rates rise.
In the past, in the era of group identity, we might value ourselves in part for things which we had not done entirely ourselves. We might feel proud that we came from a society that had built a particularly fine cathedral or temple. Our sense of self could be bolstered by belonging to a city or nation that placed great store on athletic prowess or literary talent. Modernity has sharply weakened our ability to lean on such supports. It has tied us punitively closely to what we have personally done – or not.
At the same time, it has pointed out that the opportunities for individual achievement have never been greater. We – at last – are able to do anything. We might found a fortune, rise to the top of politics, write a hit song. There should be no limits on ambition. And therefore, any failure starts to feel even more of a damning verdict on who we are. It’s one thing to have failed in an era when failure seemed like the norm, quite another to have failed when success has been made to feel like an ongoing and universal possibility.
Even as it raised living standards across the board, the modern world has managed to make the psychological consequences of failure harder to bear. It has eroded our sense that our identity could rest on broader criteria than our professional performance. It has also made it imperative for psychological survival that we try to find a way of escaping the claustrophobia of individualism, that we recall that workplace success and failure are always relative markers, not conclusive judgements, that in reality, no one is in fact ever either a loser or a winner, that we are all bewildering mixtures of the beautiful and the ugly, the impressive and the mediocre, the idiotic and the sharp. Going forward, in a fight against the spirit of the age, we might do well to ask all new acquaintances not so much what they do but – more richly – what they happen to have been thinking about recently.