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The remains of the workday: Conflation of occupation and identity

The fall of junior year brings a certain air of anxiousness to campus, particularly with students attempting to break into industry-specific work. Color-coded spreadsheets fill the screens of eager students, and computers are full of bookmarked pages of top firms and Fortune 500 lists.

Handshake no longer refers to an interpersonal, physical connection, but rather, an online platform that gives access to “exclusive opportunities.” Just submit your life’s work in a few clicks, and you may or may not receive a response back. Whispers of return offers, life-long relationships and networking opportunities echo across hallways. 

I think the most noticeable part of the “application frenzy” I’ve witnessed is that it’s all encompassing. There is a lack of distinction between personal, class and application time. Instead, they all start to agglomerate. Friends fill out cover letters during lectures, and emails are checked during dinner for scheduling interviews.

I only began to fully comprehend this troubling phenomenon when I recently read “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. The novel follows an English butler, Stevens, who reminisces about his experiences with his former employer. He reflects on his past decisions as he visits Miss Kenton on a road trip, as she also served at his estate of employment. Stevens claims the objective of the trip is to reemploy her to help run Darlington Hall, but it becomes revealed that perhaps there were some regrets in not preventing her from leaving in the first place. 

When Stevens is asked what dignity is about by a superior, he responds, “I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.” While this may seem like a humorous response to a rather serious question, Steven’s response gets to the heart of his life philosophy. His clothes represent his occupation, and even when he is outside of working hours, he fails to remove this designation from his personhood. Instead, being a butler is what defines Steven’s identity. It isn’t merely a facet or aspect of himself. 

While Stevens attributes his stoicism and unwavering commitment to his occupation as “dignity” and, ultimately “greatness,” it is also the very thing that separates him from higher desires. He is unable to express his affection for Miss Kenton, and she grows frustrated at his inability to detach himself from his professionalism. At one climatic part of the novel, the tension rises between Miss Kenton and Stevens, and she exclaims to him, “Why Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”

Instead of following his own path, and forging personal beliefs, Stevens assumes that his value comes from his duty and the alignment of his values with that of his employer’s. Throughout the novel, Stevens doesn’t engage in moral reasoning, but rather, blindly follows the thoughts and actions of his employer — even when the actions themselves are corrupt and endangering. When reflecting on the shortcomings of his boss, Stevens laments that even though his employer made mistakes and chose misguided paths, he at least chose it for himself. “As for myself, I cannot even claim that,” Stevens says. “All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?” 

Stevens’ trip alters the way he defines dignity. He recognizes the dignity that comes with agency and acting upon one’s own reasoning and emotions. At the end of the novel, Stevens sits on a bench by the beach to wait for the pier lights to turn on and watches a group of strangers bonding over the future light display. While Stevens initially views skills such as “bantering” as trivial and extraneous to his duties, he reflects that “it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in — particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.” 

This human connection is ultimately what Stevens was missing in his daily life. Through his conflation of work and identity, he was unable to form this “human warmth.” His mask of professionalism and lack of personal conviction posed a true occupational hazard. It is only in moments of downtime, during “the remains of the day,” in which he can finally make these revelations and prioritize the significance of human connection. 

As I consider the application season, I see similar patterns of correlating one’s work with personal identity. Not only do rejections correlate with feelings of unworthiness, but days can become oversaturated with the application obligations. While this phenomenon has been addressed in terms of workplace productivity through ideology such as the “4-hour work week,” I think the implications of such normalized attitudes can be even more detrimental for budding professionals.

Instead of finding companies whose values and objectives truly align with our goals, accolades can become distracting. Confirmation bias can play a large role in the way we view our own sets of core values and beliefs. In lieu of looking for the best fit in potential positions, many students may find themselves bending to fit the molds of what the “big names” are looking for. But to what extent does this altering permanently change our own attitudes and our capacities for intrinsic reasoning?

Ishiguro writes that we should “at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy.” Whether that’s deciding on a summer internship, or determining how to budget one’s time, the decisions we make shape us in significant ways. Ultimately, if there’s anything I’ve learned from Ishiguro, it’s that the things we do lead to the people we become. While that may be a daunting thought for a 20-something to consider, it’s also sort of exciting in a way. Submitting applications can be a difficult process, but the act of vetting potential roles and positions demonstrates the self-direction and autonomy we possess. 

But even more than that, I think Ishiguro is calling for an intrinsic sense of dignity that isn’t polluted by external authority, such as our workplace roles. Even though it’s easy to inflate the significance of these positions, it’s a helpful reminder that this is not all there is. It’s only when we begin to look toward the others also waiting on the pier, bonding over anticipation and repose during the remains of the day, that we can find something “true and worthy.”

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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