What Defines A “Real” Job?

If you do something and it pays you money, you have a job.

Image via Flickr/Creative Commons

Recently, it has come to my attention that I have a very different understanding of what it means to have a “real” job. A job at its most basic is something one does for money. Working at Starbucks is a job. So is sitting behind a very large desk in a tall office building sending emails and browsing Amazon for filters for the pet’s water fountain between conference calls. Though it has been hotly contested in many circles (including this one), writing is also a job. Basically anything and every activity that one undertakes with the expectation that, at the end of their time, they will receive financial compenstaion is a job. So why do my parents have such a hard time understanding that the things that I do for work are “real”?

Part of it is generational. Explaining the freelance economy to my parents, two adults who have always had full-time jobs with benefits and retirement funds, is a task that I have tried and failed at miserably. When I told them about my job at the Billfold, both greeted the news with the relieved enthusiasm I’d expect if I had told them both that I had somehow paid off my student loans and my credit cards.

“It’s not full time. It’s part time. It’s in addition to the other jobs that I currently do,” I explained in a Tone — defensive, panicked, slightly harried. Ever since I lost my job in June and picked up a cute assortment of freelance gigs, I have been very busy. Busy is fine. Busy is great. Busy is a reasonable thing to tell your parents you are when they call and ask you probing questions about your job search as you’re trying to complete something for one of the jobs before the other one starts. It’s a life! It’s work. But for some, it’s still not real.

An office job implies “real work” because there is a sense of obligation to a larger entity that will punish if you if you fail to do the job you were hired to do. If you don’t show up for three weeks, someone will eventually notice. There will be consequences. There is accountability to someone other than yourself. You are responsible for your role as the cog in the larger machine and that responsibility denotes, at least to my parents, real work. As a freelancer, making enough money to survive and then some via whatever means necessary is real work.

The nature of work is changing rapidly; co-working spaces like WeWork make it easier for individual people to capture the sense of community inherent in an office. The traditional notions of what work actually is are slowly eroding. Part-time work and contract work has just as much value as the work that you do in an office, sitting in front of a computer counting the hours until 5 pm. If what you do every day for money works for you, then it’s work. Office jobs are one kind of work. Working alone on various projects, squirrelled away in your own personal hovel is quite another. Despite their differences, they’re still work.

If what you do makes you tired by the end of the day and makes you want to lay face down on the floor for an hour or so, then it’s work. If the only thing you can think about is after your work is closing a computer and reading a book, then that’s work. If you need one solid day to recover, alone and silent, sitting outisde in the sun, it’s work. At the end of the day, if you can pay your bills and are happy, then you’re doing just fine.

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