Does Work Define Us?

Rock climber clinging to a cliff.

Work may not define us to our friends, but to work supervisors our work persona plays a pretty major role and so many of us spend decades toeing the line. I know we’d all like to think we don’t stereotype people and we work hard not to do so, but subconsciously, many of those ideas still lurk and they color our interactions with those around us.

Back in my dancing days, I worked in a fairly liberal atmosphere, one in which people were encouraged to be artistic and individual. That included the way we dressed, the things we’d do and say in public and even our hobbies. We didn’t care what anyone else thought, either.

But then I retired from dancing and spent several decades in the “normal” world and the old rules no longer applied. I found that I was expected to dress a certain way, talk a certain way and behave a certain way. I also felt like I put on a mask every morning and only partially removed it when I got home.

You can remove the mask in private and be whoever you are at heart – and that doesn’t even have to be too outlandish, mind you – but if you’re in public, even outside of work, you run the risk of someone, anyone, knowing one of your co-workers and reporting back on how “different” you were than what they thought. If that gets back to supervisors, you can bet that somewhere in the back of their minds they wonder if any of those traits will eventually carry over into work and it may influence the assignments you get, the people who interact with you, and the possibility of advancement.

So let’s take an example. Let’s say I get up every morning, put on the appropriate amount of makeup with a shade of lipstick that doesn’t scream “hooker,” accessorize sparingly, make sure I’m wearing the right length dress or skirt (nothing too short or tight), spray my hair to within an inch of its life so it stays “just so” and make sure I don’t offer contradictory opinions (always look like a team player), walk like a newly starched shirt, and sit “like a lady” – not exactly sure what that means but certainly know what it’s not, and it’s not my favorite cross-legged on the floor position.

But then someone sees me at a concert in ripped jeans, low-cut shirt, purple hair, a nose ring and a beer in my hands. Don’t think for a second that that’s not going to make the rounds at work. It may not even be malicious. It’s just a different “you” from what people are accustomed to seeing. So what happens next time someone says, “Let’s put Lisa in charge of the new project with Mr. Smith.” Without even thinking, that supervisor may say, “You know, I think maybe we need someone a little more conservative to work with Mr. Smith.”

Now clearly that’s not me (maybe only because I don’t drink), but perceptions can color your career, so you find yourself conforming as much as you can for as long as you can. That’s why I say that work defines us. We spend so much of our time in a work environment that we spend years acting as one person when our heart is another.

What would I change? At this point nothing because I’m too old, but if I had the balls, I’d live every day at work in my sweats and sneakers, I’d speak up every time I had something to say or wanted to point out the things that upper management does that piss off the “little people” like me (and that might be fairly often and really obnoxious) and I might even dance down the hallway from time to time. Good thing I’m close to retirement because my job would be over, I’d be out the door and I probably wouldn’t be able to find a new one.

The bottom line? Yes, my job defines me.

But not for long.

Crooked Career Path

How-To-Change-Careers-Later-In-Life

Approaching retirement, I look back at my career path and see a meandering, crooked line and I wonder about it sometimes. How many of those changes were my fault? How many were great opportunities? I’ve spent decades feeling guilty about some of the exits I had, wishing I’d been a bit more circumspect on the job. Then again, I recently put my career path within the parameters of an interesting study I read that described the expectations of the different generations and how their career paths were impacted by the common beliefs of the group they grew up in – Traditionalists (1900-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980) and Millennials (1977-1994).

I’m a Baby Boomer. Here’s how the study says I differ from my parent’s generation. Where they were influenced by parents who survived the Great Depression, who taught them to adhere to the rules and conform, and that you must respect authority and trust the government, I was influenced by the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution and the hippie movement and was taught that things were better for me than for them and that I could chase that great American dream and have anything I wanted. My “spend now, worry later” generation most definitely affected my money management lack of skills for decades and has resulted in not enough money saved up to be truly comfortable in my retirement. I didn’t actually start paying serious attention to budgeting and saving until I hit my 50s.

My parent’s values, which they valiantly tried to instill in me, included talks about being thankful for a job and taking whatever money I was offered and being grateful for it. That stuck with me and made it very difficult to discuss raises, and then when I didn’t get the raise I thought I deserved, it left me unhappy but unwilling to speak up.

Additionally, I saw that although my parent’s generation traditionally got a job and stayed in it until retirement, my generation saw employees getting fired from jobs they’d had for decades in favor of a younger group – and that was frightening. It meant that my generation (well okay, I won’t generalize) – it meant that I put in longer hours to show my dedication and was afraid of taking too much time off in case someone looked around one day and said, “Where the hell’s Lisa? She sure takes a lot of time off. If she doesn’t want to be here, then maybe we should get rid of her.” It’s a terrible thing to worry about your job every day.

Now some of that is my fault. I’m a bit of a nonconformist and have been known to stand up for my rights in rather juvenile ways. Take, for instance, the college summer job I got  working the switchboard at a local department store. The fashion at the time was to wear tops that were cut in at the shoulders all the way to the collar and since those were the burn-your-bra days, no one wore a bra with those tops. I didn’t think it really mattered because the switchboard crew were tucked away in a corner of the building and didn’t interact much with other employees. Nevertheless, a zealous manager called me aside one day to tell me it was improper to come to work without a bra and that one would be required in the future. So what did I do? I showed up the next day with a bra under a similarly sculptured top. I presented quite a look  with the bra straps on clear display on my bare shoulders. My rationale was that I was just following directions but could I have chosen a different top? Of course!

I also look back at my career moves and see that the different mindsets of the generations also played into my comfort level, influencing my anarchism. At first, the differences stemmed from the fact that a free-thinking Baby Boomer was working for a Traditionalist who valued conformity and respect for authority (whether or not that authority figure deserved any respect for the way he/she treated the employees). And then as I got older, I worked for Generation Xers, the ones who tried to balance work and outside life, who looked at work as “just a job” and were viewed by me as slackers. If I could stay late to finish a project, so could they, right?

I’m not really sure if a “big picture” view of the effects of generational changes at work would’ve altered my approach, but it might’ve. If nothing else, it might’ve helped me to see that the workplace was in a state of flux, moving from lifelong careers (which my parents preached was the ultimate goal) to a constantly moving target of fitting in and finding satisfaction and discovering that getting a job no longer meant keeping a job. Although I learned lessons along the way and ended up in a career better suited for me than many of the ones I left or lost, I nevertheless felt guilty about not having the ability to stick with one career until retirement.

Truth be known, my problems really began when I retired as a dancer, because show business has a completely different mindset. Individuality is embraced – indeed, expected. I’ve said many times that once I hit the “real world,” I felt like I put on a mask every day to go to work. That never changed. And because of that show business background where individuality was prized, I had to work hard to be a “team player.” Why? Because I don’t really want to be a team player; I want to stand out as having something unique to offer.

One last thing: I could probably go on for pages about the generational differences and how they subtly affect our exchanges, but I’m told blog posts should be relatively short because no one likes to read any more! Pity. I feel like I’ve short-changed the subject but I’m still trying to be a good team player.