I recently subjected myself to the necessary discomfort associated with visiting a dentist and was happy to hear that I had no significant new dental issues. However, finding no new problems for which to propose costly solutions, the dentist instead suggested I replace two existing fillings using more modern materials. As part of the faux casual conversation that preceded the preparation of the "treatment plan" the smiling dentist asked, "so, how do you earn a living?"
I was taken aback. I also had very little time to construct an appropriate answer given that a suspicious-looking implement was being guided towards my mouth even as the question was being articulated.
However, as I drove home afterwards I reflected on some answers I could have given...
- None of your business. All you need to know is that I can afford whatever option you propose, but will only go ahead with if I'm convinced it's necessary.
- I don't earn any money. Rather, I am a parasite on my family and society.
- I have entered into a collaborative and mutually-beneficial partnership with my husband whereby he works in a wage-earning role and I mind our children (including one with PWS), look after the running of our home, engage in voluntary work of benefit to society, ensure our long-term financial stability by investing and prudently spending the money that my husband earns, and assist older relatives whom I know rely on my support.
- Despite my unkempt appearance I am in fact already so filthy rich that I no longer feel the need to earn and instead luxuriate in a life of idleness and excess (I doubt he'd have believed this one).
- I earn my place in this world by working as a carer, volunteer, housekeeper and friend. These activities take so much of my time and energy that there are, sadly, not enough hours left for me to also earn money.
Of course, I didn't say any of these things, but instead mumbled something slightly incoherent about having young children and let it pass. And OK, OK, in hindsight I can see that maybe I over-reacted slightly and took just a teeny-weeny bit too much offence at the question. After all I was in a dentist's chair at the time and in a tense mood as a result.
However, even though my mood has now considerably improved, I still find the question objectionable. I have a problem with it because it implies a norm (earning money) and hence divides people into those who conform with this norm and those who don't. It also disregards the reality that societies generally rely on large numbers of people engaging in unpaid work, and it is these unpaid workers (people like me who don't earn) who make it possible for others to earn ... if there was nobody to look after my dentist's children then he couldn't work as a dentist. To me, although not explicitly-stated, this question also sounds value-laden, as if earning is better than not earning. In addition, I have a problem with this because it totally unnecessarily ignores the socially-acceptable alternative means of finding out the same information. Where I live, etiquette suggests that one should ask "what do you do?", when seeking to find out a person's work status. This formulation gives people the option to identify whether they are part of the paid or unpaid workforce or not and gives them the freedom to describe how they spend their time.
Debate around what work societies choose to pay for is, of course, hardly new. I think I may be particularly sensitive to questions like this because so many adults with PWS fall into the non-earning category and so, of course, may my son. If this happens, it won't be because he has no talents or no means of making a valuable contribution to society. In fact, I believe he can and will make a very valuable contribution to society. However, if my society remains as it is now, the contribution he makes may well be in areas that do not attract wages.
I guess I should just advise him to visit a different dentist then ... or come up with a grand plan to change society before he reaches working age!