Is work what we do when we’d rather be doing something else? Is it what we do to make money? Is it what we say we do when we need to define ourselves to friends, or fill out forms, or elude or elicit questions? Is work a job? An identity?
Clearly the answer is highly personal and contextual, varying according to the nature of the job at hand, class, gender, and history. The majority of my subjects, I suspect, will be those who continue to work because they enjoy what they do, and who had more options in the first place about how to earn their livings. Also, few people can perform physically demanding work into their eighties. I’m going to need help finding them. (Note to self: make friends with farmers!)
But retirement costs money. Social Security is tanking. No one has savings. The pool of people who have little control over the circumstances of their retirement is growing. So here’s my hypothesis: that the people in this book will lie at either end of the workforce spectrum. At one end, the elite: professionals who work because they want to, not because they have to. At the other, the poor, who cannot afford to retire and who have the physical stamina to keep working.
If this hypothesis is correct, what will these two groups have in common and where will the differences lie? In life histories? In personalities? In the nature of the work? In genes or other random bits of luck? Does it matter whether they sought out their work or whether it found them? Certainly, despite the deadening and demeaning nature of many jobs, people find meaning in all kinds of labor and derive more than a paycheck — especially if they’re still at it in their eighties and nineties. Heading in, that’s what I’m after: the intersection between work and identity.