the job as identity
I’ve known a number of retired and unemployed people in my life, and each one of them has said that after the initial euphoria of sleeping late and avoiding surly bosses that they’ve struggled with a number of issues. These include the obvious financial impact, but also finding a schedule or a pace to daily life, dealing with reduced interaction with others and – most importantly – a sudden realization that they’ve lost part of their identity.
I’ve read the observation in more than one blog/book/newspaper that a reasonable and common conversation starter in America is “what are you?” meaning “what is your profession?” In many Western cultures, but particularly in America, what you DO is a large part of your identity. Other people can form instant judgments and like to categorize you by your profession. Professors are tweedy, calm lecturers. Wall Street bankers are high-powered, intense and stressed. Construction workers are sexist, self-reliant and tough. The problem is, of course, that the construction worker might be a fan of Shakespeare and the professor might enjoy watching an occasional boxing match. A person’s profession doesn’t define them to themselves, but it does define them to others.
Yet your profession does define you. I wrote about feeling liberated when I said I was a writer back in 2008. That changed a lot of what I thought about myself. But then we moved to a new city, and I immediately began working as a consultant and returned to my previous life, a corporate 9-to-5er. That redefined me as a certain type of person. What type? I’m not sure, but certainly not a writer – a free spirit, a person unregulated by schedules. I do not create in the way I imagine I could. So once again, my job is shaping me.
I know some people are crushed by the lack of identity when they lose their job. It (the job) meant a lot, far past the monetary gain. My neighbor back in New Jersey seemed crushed by losing his marketing job. The job represented HIM. He was a marketing guy. I know plenty of people who search for identity and realize that outside of the context of a job, it’s hard to find. I’ve found it difficult when I’ve been between clients. I flinched the first time I had to say that I was unemployed after the financial crisis in 2008. I even flinched the first time I said I was self-employed. It’s not part of my mindset; I have never thought of myself as a self-employed person. I was a senior manager, a manager, a supervisor, a Wall Street consultant – a professional.
But the reconstruction of identity, separate from a job, is a critical part of the unemployment process, or the retirement years. I know that for me to become a writer (or whatever else I want to become) I would have to think of myself in those terms. I can’t think of myself as a consultant; I would have to think of myself as a gainfully self-employed writer. I like to think that would make me much happier. But at least for the time being my identity is still caught up in my job rather than in my aspirations.
Whether or not your career should mean something about your identity, it is a critical part of who we are and what we strive for. For many people, what they “do” – their job – is not enough. We want to be defined by what we hope to achieve in this life. Determining what – if anything – we can achieve is the first step to understanding whether our job is a part of that achievement, or merely a sideshow.