As the pandemic hurled the world full force into an economic depression, Americans are questioning their relationship to labor more than ever. An old staple of identity and purpose — one’s “dream job” — is now being called into question. The phrase “I don’t dream of labor” gained widespread popularity as young adults questioned the idea that people had to form their sense of self and purpose around their job.
Now, we as college students are faced with the question of how to construct an identity around a job market that is ever-changing, in a society in which the real value of labor is constantly being called into question.
But should we be dreaming of labor?
First, it is important to acknowledge that the entire question of whether to dream of labor is a privileged one. Yesterday was Labor Day: a federal holiday meant to commemorate the work of the labor movement and unions. Many people do not have the option of deciding where they’d like to work, much less whether they want to work at all.
During the pandemic, this difference became apparent. While white-collar workers were complaining about the pain of attending meetings through Zoom, frontline workers were working long hours or facing violence for enforcing the mask mandate.
Second, the idea that one’s job defines their purpose and identity is deeply outdated. There is a stark divide as to how different generations think of their relationship to labor. Baby boomers are thought to value a stable job and income over work preferences, while millennials are thought to believe that people should do what they love.
A 2019 survey found that Generation Z college students are more confused about career paths and majors than their millennial antecedents, with almost two-thirds of college students overwhelmed with the task of picking a major.
With the rise of the “I don’t dream of labor” movement, many of Generation Z are questioning the role work has in their lives rather than constructing their identity around it.
Third, constructing one’s identity around labor leaves their identity woefully incomplete. For many college students, the job market can feel like a constant rat race, chasing after the next resume builder or a stable income. How can one define their present identity if it is constantly being framed around a future possibility?
Moreover, many people feel they have to sacrifice parts of their identity or desires to achieve financial success. But what happens to someone’s identity after they’ve achieved their dream job?
This does not even begin to address the sheer instability of the future. How can a person define their sense of self around their future job when the economy can be disrupted by unexpected catastrophes, such as the pandemic? An individual’s whole sense of self can fall apart if they base it on dreaming of something that can be so easily disrupted.
Some may argue that the drive for achievement through financial success and employment is not necessarily a meaningless endeavor. Some may view labor as merely a tool through which one can contribute to society. But rather than focusing on achieving certain mile points or income, one can shift their perspective to viewing how they can contribute to their local community now.
Hustle culture, for instance, was created by the Black community as a response to racist stereotypes and to bring wealth into their communities that have long been financially suppressed by systemic racism. The term has culturally and historically specific meanings tied to the Black community, but has since been appropriated by the mainstream media to signify finding empowerment through overworking oneself.
Ensuring financial stability for future generations is important. It is difficult to parse the role labor should have in one’s life when it is a necessity of day-to-day survival and when its function has an impact on others.
But it is nonetheless important to view labor as one piece of the puzzle of one’s life. Some may not want to — nor have the option to — contribute to society through their job. Someone’s choice of employment should not be the end-all-be-all to one’s purpose or value in the world. Sometimes a job is just a job.
In a college environment, when one’s success may feel like it’s constantly being compared to their classmates, it is important to remember that one does not need to do anything or be anything to have value. There is always going to be inherent value in simply being.