Trending on Twitter this week for those of us who “can’t even” on the social media site was the textual meme, “5 Jobs I’ve Had.” Like most things born on the Internet, the cultural roots and class-based ramifications of this deceptively simple list say so much more about us than the five jobs we once worked. Or, in the words of The Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins:
- this whole exercise is an excuse for blue-checkmark twitter to claim they once actually worked for a living instead of staring at this website all day
- (have i ever mentioned my hardscrabble past life as a coal miner?)
Yet, for those of us without the blue-checkmark of fame, most of our tweets were earnest as we curated five quirky or lesser-known jobs we have held in our career trajectories. The chance to reflect on where we have been and where we are now is an inherently human reflex, one that allows us to simultaneously take stock and remember that most journeys are far from linear and, with any luck, far from over.
For me, my random assortment of five jobs ranged from obsolete (“newspaper roller”) to mystically vague (“intern in the Worry-Free Department — not a George Saunders’ short story, I assure you”). Each job title I listed, I am sure, could populate a short story of its own, as I am sure many people’s jobs could do as well.
The whole Twitter exercise reminded me, in fact, of writer Kim Barnes’ gorgeous flash essay, “Work,” in which she details four of her working-class jobs in the 2005 edited collection, Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction:
The final words of Barnes’ essay meditate on the transformative nature of work, in this case, what she earned chopping wood and how money transmutes into sustenance:
“…I carry the check with me, folded and tucked. I stop by the store, buy dark bread, a gallon of milk, a cheap bottle of wine to share with my lover who awaits my return, a rough season’s soup bubbling atop the stove. He raises the spoon to his mouth and listens for my step at the door.”
The lyrical lover side of things, though, also quickly turned more blue, as the word “jobs” conjured sex acts others have participated in or initiated. Ariel Dumas, a screenwriter for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, summarized some of those jobs here.
It is not lost on Twitter users that some of the work we do is NSFW or problematic. People of all genders and persuasions complained of providing emotional labor or running errands for former loves and partners. Others critiqued the economic system much of our collective work is based on from a Marxist or feminist or activist perspective.
Others still, such as American comedian and writer Samantha Irby, used the list to explore at least one job many do not put on their resume:
five jobs i’ve had:
Meanwhile, others quoted their “jobs” from music, such as Meredith Brooks’ 1997 hit “Bitch” or The Steve Miller Band’s 1973 song, “The Joker.” Others mentioned jobs I would never have thought existed in the year 2019 (and made me feel all of my 40 years a thousand times over):
- Pokémon trainer
- Esports athlete
- Content creator
- Cryptocurrency advisor and trader
While others warned us of the sheer stupidity of sharing random jobs that may, in fact, be identification prompts for various online passwords. Astrophysicist Dr. Brooke Simmons summed up the phishing dangers of sharing our professional past-lives as thus:
Five jobs I’ve had:
- on Twitter
While Dr. Simmons makes an important observation, to be sure, what makes these types of textual memes go viral regardless of the danger? Why do many of us answer these questions about what jobs we have held, privacy be damned?
For some of us, listing what we have done to get to where we are now allows us to take personal inventory and to say grace, to exhale and be grateful for where we are today.
Yet, I could not help but think of those who are unemployed, imprisoned, between jobs, doing work that our country and culture often do not adequately recognize or pay with cold, hard cash (caretakers of the aging and the young, for instance). In America, we love to conflate identity and value with our professions, and there is, of course, a great deal of merit in reflecting on our life histories through the professional lens of work. But within the double-edged sword of work and identity rests a greater truth: Our work does not define us.
No matter how much a source of pride, income, and a culmination of education and effort, or a lack thereof, a career or a job–two very different animals, to be sure–will one day end. Who we are as people in these lists is but a snapshot of our skills, abilities, character, opportunities, privileges, values, and the stories we tell about ourselves.
I think about that young girl in the basement rolling newspapers on a flat floral sheet for pennies on the dollar or the college-aged woman writing how-to manuals for a Unix-based database, and I see not where she has worked, but what she has learned along the way.
What we do for a living likely matters, sure, but who we are and how we act beyond work, I think, matters even more.