Though I receive a lot of questions as your work friend, there are a few common themes. Mostly, people want something different, something more. They want more satisfaction or more money or more respect. They want to feel as if they’re making a difference. They want to feel valued or seen or heard. They want the man in the next cubicle to chew less loudly so they are afforded more peace. They want to have access to drinking water outside of the bathroom. They are employed at a family business and are ambitious but there’s no room for advancement for nonfamily members. They work at a very small company without a formal H.R. department so there is no recourse for the many work issues that arise. They want to have more time for themselves and interests beyond how they spend their professional lives. They want and want and want and worry that they will never receive the satisfaction they seek.
Mostly, people are worried. They have families and mortgages or rent and student loans and car loans and all the other financial obligations that consume our lives. They are in their 60s and don’t know how to navigate the contemporary job market, or they are in their 20s and worry they will never be taken seriously. They are two years away from vested retirement and can’t afford to make a career change. They are just out of college without a strong résumé and can’t afford to be selective. They’ve been working for 30 years but never had the chance to save for retirement. They have a disability but don’t want to disclose that to their employer for fear of reprisal. They want to bring attention to a terrible wrong but are their family’s breadwinner.
Mostly, people are trying to figure out how to navigate ever-evolving workplace norms. As the ongoing pandemic waxes and wanes, they want to work from home forever, or they miss the din of the office and happy hours with their best work friends, or they want flexibility to enjoy both working from home and spending time in the office. They want to unionize for better working conditions, and they want parental leave, and they want to know they won’t be fired for simply being who they are. They want to stop living paycheck to paycheck but are making minimum wage and can’t see a way past that.
We all have different circumstances, but most of us contend with the same stark reality — we don’t have as much control over our professional lives as we want and need and deserve. A lot of the time, we are stuck. We might be able to leave a terrible job or a terrible boss, but rarely is there a guarantee that the new job or new boss will be an improvement. This is not to say that work and misery are synonymous. The luckiest among us love our jobs and feel valued and respected and well-compensated. That should be the rule but in many cases, alas, it is the exception.
A new year holds opportunity, a fresh start, a time to change. But most of us are returning to the same old jobs where we will deal with the same old frustrations. I love giving advice but the real challenge in being your work friend is that few people are in positions to realistically make the changes that would improve their professional lives. There’s too much at stake.
Yes, you should quit your job. Yes, you should call out the overbearing colleague who steals your ideas and talks over everyone. Yes, you should go back to graduate school. Yes, you should make a drastic career change and pursue your passion. Of course you should make the risky, terrifying choices with absolutely no guarantee of success. But what we should do and what we can do are two different things.
And still. It is a new year. However challenging change in our professional lives might feel, we are not just cogs in the machine, trapped in unfortunate circumstances. In these early days of 2023, I’ve been thinking a lot about how who I am and what I do for a living are two very different things. I’m a writer and professor and editor. I love my work, but it is still work. I am, admittedly, a workaholic. Like many people, I am overextended and overcommitted. I work far more than I should, even though my time is finite and apparently, I do need sleep. I am ambitious, yes, but ambition alone is not responsible for the intensity of my professional life. The older I get, the more I question why. At the end of my life, will I want to be remembered for who I was or what I did for a living?
I am far from alone. In the United States, we have an obsession with work as a virtue — the harder we work, the closer we are to God. It’s a toxic cultural myth that contributes to the bizarre valorization of people sacrificing almost everything at the altar of an extractive economy. It’s why an entire discourse rose around labeling people who are simply doing the jobs they were hired for, nothing more and nothing less, as “quiet quitting.”
The expectation that we should go above and beyond for employers who feel no reciprocal responsibility is a grand, incredibly destructive lie. We may not have a lot of professional flexibility, but we do not need to believe anything that is so fundamentally detrimental to well-being.
The pandemic has given us the opportunity to rethink almost everything from where we live to how we work. Employees in all kinds of industries are organizing themselves into labor unions to advocate for equitable working conditions. People are taking the big risks and leaving terrible jobs, and employers are having to rise to the occasion to recruit and retain talented people.
These glimmers of progress are incredibly encouraging. As we think about this new year and what we want our professional lives to look like, we should all take some time to reflect on who we are and what gives us meaning beyond what we do. We should think about how to nurture who we are beyond what we do. The greatest shame would be to reach the end of our lives and have the epitaph read, “They worked really hard.”
Write to Roxane Gay at firstname.lastname@example.org.