Never ask people what they do for a living. The answer is often completely incomprehensible. We have all listened politely to explanations of people’s jobs that leave us still baffled about what they actually do. It is as if most people spend most of their lives doing things that they are quite unable to explain to an interested outsider – or presumably even to themselves.
This is a product of our increasingly complicated and specialised economy. Time was when most people would have answered ‘I’m a farmer: I produce food’ or ‘I’m an artisan: I make things’. Now they are more likely to say something like ‘I regulate the credit default swap market for packaged collateralised debt obligations’, the very incomprehensibility of which answer (even after much further prodding and opaque technical explanation), might lead you to have a sneaking suspicion that neither your interlocutor, nor perhaps anyone else out there, has the faintest idea how the world is now working or whether we’re making a positive or negative contribution to it – a suspicion that is occasionally and spectacularly borne out by events.
This raises the troubling thought that most of us are poor players in a hugely complex system whose moral, as well as practical, roles are quite beyond our capacity to grasp. The ability to explain what your job really consists of, and then to analyse its political and ethical consequences, is all too rare. When encountered, it can be profound. A clever enough description of someone’s day in the office can be both fascinating in itself and a serious challenge to our worldview.