You can be a brain surgeon
Saturday September 9, 2006
To spice up this month's Labour party conference, several cabinet ministers will be showing videos of themselves in unlikely situations. David Miliband, as environment secretary, will be seen helping out at a recycling plant, while Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland secretary, will be working in a steering-wheel factory (the link between his "real" and "pretend" job being, presumably, metaphorical). Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, will not, mercifully, be giving us her Titania at Stratford. Instead, she will be visiting disadvantaged children.
The inspiration behind this strange scheme is Faking It, the Channel 4 programme that has amateurs trying to master someone else's profession in a matter of weeks, and then seeing if they can fool a panel of expert judges into thinking that they are the real deal. In this particular version, Miliband, Hain and Jowell will, presumably, be seeing if they can trick people into believing that they are fully functioning members of the country's labour force.
What no one seems to have realised, however, is that feeling you are a fake is not the monopoly of people on TV pretending to be showjumpers, drag artists or DJs. It is, rather, the state of mind of anyone returning to work after a longish summer break. For during those few panicky moments as you walk back into the office, classroom or call centre after a few weeks away, it is impossible to remember just what it was you used to do between nine and five.
Rationally, you know that you are a teacher, graphic designer or yoga instructor. But as the muggy swirl of an early September Monday morning descends, you find yourself staring dully at your desk, your computer or your legs and wondering just what it is that anyone expects you actually to do with them. You are Sue or Sarah or Jim. You are a complex and unique bundle of talents, desires and vulnerabilities. What you are emphatically not is a credit control officer or deputy head.
This is about much more than post-holiday blues, that nagging nostalgia for the carefree person you were while swimming with dolphins in Florida. Rather it describes - just as the format for Faking It so cleverly did - the way in which our jobs have become increasingly indistinct in recent times. Now that so few of us are employed in actually making things there's an increasing similarity to our working days. Whether you're a solicitor or social worker, chances are that a good chunk of your office time is spent in front of a computer, on the phone and wondering if anyone has noticed that you never bother to wash up your coffee mug.
From here it's a short hop to the fantasy that no particular skills are required to do a specific job. According to the Faking It format, what matters is not a formal apprenticeship followed by years of experience, but simply an ability to talk the lingo and front things out. Superficiality rather than depth is the deciding dimension in this world of dissolving occupational identities.
On the surface - and this is where our working lives are increasingly sited - this new flexibility of roles should usher in a democratic playground where everyone is entitled to have a go at anything: bosses will double up as photocopier engineers and cleaners will have a stab at being CEO for the day.
But far from making everyone feel gloriously playful, this dissolving of professional identities only makes us fretful and panicky. For, if it really is the case that anyone can do anything, then there remains no good reason for turning up at work on Monday. Even if you happen to be a brain surgeon, the chances are that there is some cheeky chappy of a hospital porter only too happy to step into your sterilised, plastic-bag shoes.