For centuries humans have been defined, and have defined themselves, by their craft, their trade, their profession (their job). When not sleeping or eating, we spend most of our time on the job. Most of us spend further precious time getting to the workplace. We have distant relatives or friends of friends about whom we know almost nothing except “what they do” (and ancestors we identify by what they did). A great-grandfather owned a feed store in Iowa. A quality-control guy where you work has a friend who is a plumber, whose brother the electrician has a daughter in your daughter’s grade-school class. Three guys in a tub will never be remembered as Pete, Tom, and John, but will be immortalized as a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker. “Who lives in that house across the street? Joe Smith. Oh, you mean who is he? He works in the prosecutor’s office.” Our jobs and careers are, to the outside world, the essence of our single-sentence biographies and, one day, the first paragraph of our obituaries.
Self-worth, productivity, the psychology of being a useful citizen . . . a very powerful battery of attributes is wrapped up in this business of “having a job.” I leave it to the psychologists and sociologists to describe these things in clinical and historical detail. But we all have a visceral understanding of both the individual and societal meaning of being defined by what we do. We all know—from direct observation or literature or drama or, perish the thought, personal experience—what happens to the psyche of someone who believes he or she is (so much irony to this next word, in context here) obsolete. For someone who is, let’s say, 60 years old and whose once-revered or at least respected craft suddenly and literally is obsolete . . . the psychological impact has to be devastating for all but a tiny minority with superhuman resilience.