Our paycheques ourselves

How careers define us.


Heinrich Schmidt, the father of medieval Germany’s most notorious hangman, spent much of his youth in a respectable way. As a young man, he worked as a woodsman in Hof, a village in present-day Bavaria. His profession marked him as an honourable man. Because of his career, he could eat where he liked, live where he liked and expect his children to do the same.

But all of that changed one fall day in 1533. The local lord had arrested three men he suspected of plotting to have him killed. Hof was too small a town to have it’s own executioner. So the lord pulled Schmidt from the crowd and ordered him to do the killings himself. As the historian Joel F. Harrington writes in his new book, The Faithful Executioner, it was a command that would forever change Schmidt’s life—and his son’s too.

Schmidt hanged the men. (He didn’t have much choice. It was either that or be hanged himself.) But by doing so he ruined himself in his neighbours’ eyes. Having performed one execution—a dirty task—he could never be anything but an executioner to them again. He had to abandon his old life and pursue a new, much-loathed, one: hanging, decapitating and torturing criminals full time.

Schmidt’s fall was a reflection of how much of one’s identity and honour were tied with work in medieval Germany. What you did in that society was taken as a reflection of who you were. Conversely, the careers that were open to you were strictly limited by what kind of person people judged you to be.


Hug a trash collector

American sanitation workers are three times more likely to be injured—or killed—on the job than police officers or firefighters.

It’s easy to look back on such obsessions and scoff. But in reality, work anchors our lives and identities as much today, if not more, than it did in Schmidt’s time. In contemporary Canadian society—especially in the university-educated, professional world—few people go to church and fewer still belong to political parties. Work, in other words, is one of the only social markers we have left.

That’s especially true for people in professions like law or medicine or finance—or even some crafts like writing or cooking—where the costs of entry to the tribe are high. It takes so much time and sometimes so much money to become a doctor or a lawyer or a vice-president of finance at RBC, that the end result has to be more than a job. And it is: it’s a place in the world; a whole set of virtues and assumptions that people will read into you because you have that career.

For those at the top of the ladder, that’s generally a good thing. (“Why yes, I am virtuous and caring,” says the doctor. “Smart and hard working? That’s me,” agrees the lawyer.) But for those on the other end, it can be a raw deal. Indeed, the problem with tying work too closely to identity is that there are jobs that need doing in any society that no one is particularly interested in being identified with. That was true of executioners in medieval Germany. It is equally true of garbage collectors today.

That’s a fact New York University anthropologist Robin Nagle illustrates ably in her new book Picking Up: On the Streets with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. Nagle worked the streets as a trash collector as part of her research. And the insider’s look she provides reveals a world steeped in slight and stigma—not all of it imposed from the outside.

One worker Nagle tracked spent nearly 20 years with the department. He never told his neighbours what he did for a living. It’s not hard to understand why. Even he considered himself a failure for having never left the garbage world, despite the comfortable middle-class life it provided him and his family. (New York sanitation workers can earn upwards of $80,000 a year and have guaranteed pensions.) Other workers told Nagle stories of being invisible to the people they served. One regular problem for garbagemen in New York City, apparently, is people allowing their dogs to urinate on bags just as the workers are trying to pick them up. It’s as if, to the dog owners, the sanitation workers don’t even exist.

This is all part of what Nagle describes as “the consistent state of not-there-ness” garbagemen (and -women) endure. No one says it aloud, but the message to them is clear: as a culture, we don’t think anyone doing those jobs is worth knowing, or even acknowledging. It isn’t just garbagemen, either. How many of us know the cleaning staff who dust our office desks? How many of us stop to chat with the temporary foreign workers who serve our Tim Hortons coffee?

As it is for those workers today, so it was for executioners in the Germany of the 1500s. So lasting was the stigma of Schmidt’s unfortunate career change that his son, too, fell into a career as a professional executioner. Frantz Schmidt spent more than 40 years killing criminals for money after following in his father’s unchosen footsteps. Throughout it all, he kept a diary, recording each kill and often editorializing on the crimes of those he executed.

That diary makes up the heart of Harrington’s book. It reveals a man rarely conflicted by his work, but often shattered by the toll it took on his stature. As the official executioner of Nuremberg, Schmidt had a house, a good salary and a job for life. But he couldn’t mix with “honourable” society—even his touch was considered enough to taint others.

Harrington wants us to look beyond what Schmidt did—including pulling the flesh from criminals with hot pincers—and consider who he was: a complex man with a deep moral code who spent much of his adult life trying to regain the honour his father lost. Nagle, on the other hand, is concerned both with the people and the work. She wants her readers to know who sanitation workers are and what they do with the acres of garbage that get thrown to the curb every day.

Neither writer has an easy task. Acknowledging that there are people behind jobs we’d rather ignore means thinking about why those jobs exist in the first place. For medieval Germany, it would have meant pondering a culture that executes adulterers and common thieves. For us, it means grappling with the empires of trash we build and routinely discard. In other words, it would require accepting that those jobs reflect a part of our identities, too, which is not a thought most people are eager to consider.