It's Time To Stop Defining Ourselves By Our Careers

Photographed by Victoria Adamson.

“For three years I struggled to find work within conservation or ecology – working a few short contracts, volunteering a lot and waitressing to keep myself afloat. These were the most exhausting years of my life; constantly job-seeking, working sometimes seven days a week and feeling like a failure.”

These words, from 24-year-old Emma, could be the experience of just about any 20- or 30-something woman pursuing their 'dream' career in today’s world. Pressure comes from all directions – our parents, ourselves, Juno-filtered Instagram posts – to find a job that’s somehow 'meaningful', and make whatever sacrifices necessary to secure it. The idea is that, deep down, we all have a passion – something that‘s ‘meant’ for us – and all we need to do to achieve happiness is to realise that passion. A nice idea, if it were that easy.

After several years balancing volunteering or work experience with shift work in the hope that a vacancy would open up in the right area, Emma eventually shifted focus and ended up with a role as a designer at a small magazine publisher instead. “I often feel ashamed that I'm not still trying to work within conservation and that I've somehow given up on ‘my dream job’,” she says, “but in reality I had no idea where I wanted to end up before.”

The feeling of having failed ourselves career-wise is a familiar one, especially among women. Recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that women in the UK suffer more from work-related stress, anxiety and depression than men. A lead psychiatrist commenting on these numbers blamed, unsurprisingly, factors like unequal pay, being expected to “look the part” and the feeling that we must prove we’re as good as men.

Inequality in the workplace is – for the most part – out of our control. For a long time, just accessing the world of work meant navigating one obstacle after another; legally, women in the UK weren't allowed to join 'the professions' until 1919, and the Equal Pay Act only came about in 1970. Then there's the instability of the job market. So why do we measure ourselves by the success of our careers as if these barriers (and others) don't exist?

Philosopher Alain de Botton defines ‘status anxiety’ as “a worry… that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.” Hits home, right? Not only do we worry we’ll fail but, in a world in which the word ‘success’ is practically interchangeable with ‘career’, we worry that failing to become successful means we’ll lose our right to be respected. And that gives way to a lot of negative, unhelpful thoughts; that we’re undeserving, a waste of space. Our biggest insecurities, on steroids.

It doesn’t help that the baby boomer generation, including our parents, is dishing out some pretty outdated life advice. Articles entitled ‘Advice that older people would give their younger selves’ are all over the internet and always contain the phrases 'do what you love' and 'money isn’t everything'.

When the word ‘success’ becomes interchangeable with ‘career’, we worry that failing to be successful means losing our right to be respected

In the '80s and '90s, 'doing what you love' was more possible. The 2008 recession ended what the government called the “longest period of sustained, stable economic growth the UK has known”, where a three-bedroom house practically came free with your first paycheque. Today, though, as rents soar and inflation rises, the idea that anyone can give up their office job to pursue a financially risky career is limited to people with financial and emotional support.

Megan*, a 25-year-old law student, relies on her family’s financial help as the grant she receives from her firm is “nowhere near enough" to live off in London. “I can’t keep up with my salaried friends’ lifestyles – it makes me wonder how careers like law could be accessible to people without that help,” she says.

It’s a “definite downside” to the job, according to Megan. But while she and Emma – who are both pursuing careers in enviable fields – have similar motives when it comes to self-worth and achievement, law, unlike publishing, at least promises financial security in the end.

“I must admit there’s a materialistic motive,” Megan says. “Prestigious jobs are often well paid, which is important to me when it comes to security – and, hopefully, the possibility of worrying less.”

Financial security is important; it buys something called food. So it’s weird how reluctant many of us are to admit that we’re willing to prioritise it over emotional – or moral – reasons.

Back in the '40s, psychologist Abraham Maslow created something he called the ‘hierarchy of needs’ – a chart that looks like one of those food group triangles. The idea, as I’m sure you’ve been told, is that we must fulfil our most fundamental needs – warmth, safety, love and a sense of belonging – before we desire things like esteem and self-actualisation, pursuing our talents and potential.

Maslow believed that if those basic needs aren’t met first, we’ll be anxious and tense. In other words, if we put prestige and the sense of purpose we hope a job will provide before love and a stable roof over our heads, stress will follow. Sound familiar?

Having an enjoyable career is fantastic but using it to validate your worth is another thing altogether. Gender inequality, the economy and being brought up with unrealistic expectations isn’t our fault, so perhaps it’s time we started measuring our lives by those basic needs – security, the people we love – instead.

So don’t feel guilty for taking the job that’ll provide security instead of accomplishment, in order to lead a life of comfort instead of worry. You owe it to yourself.

*Names have been changed