Jane Devine: A job is what we do, not who we are

Picture: Jane Barlow
Picture: Jane Barlow
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MY YOUNGER sister told everyone she met that she was going to be a panda when she was big. She was adamant about it, probably for a bit too long.

She became a psychiatric nurse. I didn’t want to be anything, I was going to be a vet – that didn’t come about either.

As we near the end of the summer holidays, with many children preparing for primary one, it seems that starting school is a prompt for people to ask even four and five-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up. The answers from my son vary from being a chef to a builder to a farmer, while my daughter is clear that she wants to be “a lady that walks dogs”.

At that age it is fun, but for those who recently received their Highers result, it is likely to be quite a different story. It’s not just that there is a pressure on young people to decide on a career early on, but it also seems that as a society and culture we define people by their jobs.

When we meet new people it’s one of the first things we ask; when we see elderly people, long since retired, it can be hard to place them; when we talk to students, we ask what job their studies will lead to.

It’s quite boring really: to be defined by our job. Jobs are something we do, in the main because we have to pay the bills. There are people whose jobs are their life: a vocation, but while many of us may find our jobs interesting or enjoyable, they’re often not really what we’re all about.

So why are we so obsessed about the working life of others? Maybe because it lets us know how educated, rich or important other people are relative to us. It helps us place them, but only as far as they can be placed by their jobs.

It’s mostly the other things in people’s lives that make them who they are: the books they’ve read; the places they’ve travelled to; the people they’ve met; and the experiences they’ve had.

Perhaps that’s also something the parents (particularly the mums) in the playground should remember in the next couple of weeks. For those women who gave up jobs to bring up their children, seeing them off into school can be a hugely emotional experience.

Not only are they about to see the person they’ve spent most days with over the last four or five years, begin a new stage of life, they then have to find out what to do with themselves. Their jobs defined them and then their children did – what now?

It probably wouldn’t seem as bad, if as society we didn’t put so much emphasis on what each of us does for a living. These mums, like the students in sixth year, like the children going off to school and frankly everyone else, should remember: it’s not what you are, it’s who you are that matters.