I vividly remember my first job babysitting in high school. I loved it some days, hated it others.
But mainly, it didn’t feel like a “real” job. Sure, I was getting paid. But I didn’t have a desk, or business cards, or a boss necessarily (even if I worked for some bossy mothers).
So I don’t count it in my imaginary list of “adult experiences.” In fact, I don’t consider any other gigs I had in school as real jobs. It took getting my own desk in an office, a company-provided laptop, and even my own company swag before deciding I was in my first actual job. I could afford to pay rent, a monthly subway pass, and food all on my own—and that made it real.
But is that the right way to think about your career? Every single one of those experiences mattered. In fact, I wouldn’t be where I am and who I am today without them. But what are they then, if not real jobs?
This is the question I grappled with as I read a recent Billfold article by Megan Reynolds titled, “What Defines a ‘Real’ Job?” As a freelancer, she says she struggles to explain her career choices to her loved ones. For them, and for many, an office job is considered the only definition of “real work:”
“[T]here is a sense of obligation to a larger entity that will punish if you if you fail to do the job you were hired to do. If you don’t show up for three weeks, someone will eventually notice. There will be consequences. There is accountability to someone other than yourself.”
But do objects and people define work? Does a paycheck? Does a timed schedule?
As Reynolds points out, the working world is changing and we all know it. People work from home, they travel and work, they work part-time, they have multiple jobs, they freelance, they get side gigs. And from most, if not all, of these activities, people are compensated one way or another. And regardless of how, they’re all accountable to someone or something. Thus, nothing of significance makes these any different from a desk job.
So, Reynolds tries to take a different approach to the “real job” argument:
If what you do makes you tired by the end of the day and makes you want to lay face down on the floor for an hour or so, then it’s work. If the only thing you can think about after your work is closing a computer and reading a book, then that’s work. If you need one solid day to recover, alone and silent, sitting outside in the sun, it’s work. At the end of the day, if you can pay your bills and are happy, then you’re doing just fine.
To her, it’s about exhaustion, or the physical and mental effort of “work”—where you spend your energy, how much of it you use up, and the way it makes you feel.
As much as I liked this response, I still wanted to get a feel for how others felt—so I reached out to my own co-workers and asked them this same question, “How do you define a real job?”
Chatu Abeysinghe, an account executive, says it’s about having a career versus a job—as Chris Rock states in an NSFW bit (a.k.a., just put your headphones in before watching),“When you got a career there ain’t enough time in the day...time just flies...when you got a job, there’s too much time.” It’s about “flow,” or enjoying what you do every day so much that you lose track of time.
Ekene Ugboaja, a sales development representative, agrees:
As an immigrant, a ‘real job’ was always something that was traditionally successful, such as a doctor or lawyer. Something your parents can talk to their friends about. I’ve only just started to learn that a job real or fake doesn’t even have to feel like a job or work. I now see a real job as something that makes me enough money to sustain a healthy, happy lifestyle.
Muse Senior Editor Stacey Lastoe argues that they come in many different forms:
After working as a server for years, I received an offer to manage the restaurant I worked in. I took the position, in part, I now believe, because it felt more ‘real’ than waiting tables. It came with benefits and was salaried, so there was a certain level of security that wasn’t present before. That to me made it feel real. In retrospect though, I think servers and bartenders and hostesses and bus boys and line cooks—basically all of the people who contribute to the operation of a restaurant—have ‘real’ jobs. Why is an office job more of a real job than a pastry chef’s?
After hearing these answers, I asked a follow-up: How do you find the right “real” job for you?
Andrew Weisse, an account executive, for example, says he defines his own version by the “three F’s:” fit (how much do you personally and professionally fit into the company?), family (is there a good sense of work-life balance?), and fortune (do you have enough money to live comfortably?). If all three of these things aren’t met, it’s not a real job.
Kara Walsh, CMO, similarly says that to be considered legitimate, it should contribute to your overall career—and life plan: “It’s a pursuit in which you spend the majority of your waking hours and think about even when you’re off hours. Not a ‘real’ job is one you’re doing just to pay the bills and kill time until you get the real one.”
Truth talk: I don’t have the ultimate answer. But whatever definition you decide to take, it’s clear from all these answers that one big part of the definition is that it mean something to you—for some that means a way to pay the bills, for others it’s a channel to explore your passions, and for some in my office, it’s the right step on your chosen career path. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find a position that hits on all three of those.
What do you consider a real job? Tweet me, I’d love to know!
Photo of desk courtesy of JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images.
Previously an editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She’s written almost 500 articles for The Muse on anything from productivity tips to cover letters to bad bosses to cool career changers, many of which have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer and reader, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author