How much of your identity is tied to your work? How much of it SHOULD be tied to your work?
I recently watched a movie, The Company Men, and was deeply touched. The movie follows the crumbling lives of three men who, having climbed the corporate ladder for years, “had it all” in terms of material possessions, until sudden downsizing in their company had proved that when everything you “own” is financed by debt, you don’t really own it.
As the main characters get stripped away from their “wealth,” facing the reality of giving up luxury and dealing with the difficulties – and humiliation – of trying to land new jobs, we are reminded of several important things (the following post does contain spoilers, so watch out if you’re still planning to see this movie):
If It’s Financed With Debt, It’s Not Yours
The movie opens showing us the lavish lifestyles that the three main characters have grown accustomed to – huge mansions in upscale suburbs, luxury cars, private golf club memberships, using the company’s private jet when going on vacations. We see this blatant consumerism, and we see how their entire identity is tied to their perceived wealth – perceived, because this wealth is financed by debt and evaporates as soon as they can’t make the payments.
Corporate America is Cold and Soulless
Maybe you happen to work in an amazing company, but it’s true for the vast majority of employees. As much as a company pretends to “care” about its employees, it does so only in the sense that happy, healthy employees perform better. Your company probably does not “care” about you (the bigger the company, the more this is so), and if the bottom line will demand it, someone higher up will get rid of you, fast.
Ageism Runs Rampant in Corporate America
One of the most depressing topics the movie tackles is how nearly impossible it is for older employees to compete. In past generations, age used to be an asset – experience and wisdom admired and sought. But today, technology and fast evolving trends mean that experience has less and less value, because everything keeps changing so fast. In some professions, such as medicine or the law, over-50 may mean more experience and better performance. But in a growing number of fields, if you’re over 50, you should watch your back carefully – Corporate America might soon grow tired of you.
Material Possessions Can Define People
And when they do, it can be dangerous – one of the characters in the movie, pushing 60 and unable to find a new job, chose to kill himself, stating that “his life is over” now that he doesn’t have a job anymore.
But If You Don’t Let Them Define You, You’re Better Off
Of course, even in bad times, even in recessions and depressions, the vast majority of people don’t end their lives. This can simply mean that the will to live trumps financial hardship, or it could mean that most of us are smart enough to realize that life isn’t all about work – that work is just one aspect of it.
In fact, losing your corporate job can create new and exciting opportunities. The two characters in the movie that dealt with the situation better, did it by focusing on things other than their corporate identity. One of them rediscovered his family, the other became an entrepreneur.
The movie is not an easy one to watch, especially because it was released so soon after the Great Recession and when unemployment rates are still so high. It certainly grates on some raw nerves, and my husband and I felt quite shaken as we were leaving the theater. But despite the many implied warnings the movie contains, it’s not all negative – there’s definitely a positive message of “It’s not the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand, that matters.”