the job as identity

Here comes the sun...


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.

photo credit: chantrybee

  • http://www.moneymastered.net Andrea @MoneyMastered

    I have a lot of difficulty separating what I do from who I am, and it has affected my personal life. When I tell people I’m a therapist, they automatically freak out thinking I’m going to analyze everything they say. They want to know if I have any stories about “crazy people” (which of course I do). The whole conversation changes and I find myself thinking, “I shouldn’t have told the truth about what I do for a living.”

    About a year ago, I had a profile on a dating website. I got frustrated with all the “Your job intimidates me” comments, so I changed my occupation on my profile to Cashier. Within hours, I had more messages than I could answer! It’s infuriating.

    I enjoy blogging because it forces me to define myself beyond my profession and remember that I have other qualities, too. Hopefully I’ll be able to transition over time and find myself instead of a resume.

  • http://freefrombroke.com Glen Craig

    It’s still strange for me to answer the question “what do you do?” For me the response is stay-at-home-dad AND web publisher. I’m totally cool with that being part of my identity though. My last job – not so much.

    I think a big problem is many of us aren’t really passionate about what we do yet we still judge people by their jobs. If we could all be passionate about our work then it would be cool.

    • http://moneymastered.net Will @ MoneyMastered

      My response is the same as yours, except for the dad part :-)

      I think you hit the nail right on the head when you say many of us aren’t passionate about what we do. To the vast majority of the population, the job is basically a means to an end, nothing else. Because of a number of factors, people choose a profession according to earning potential, and pretty much teach themselves to “love” what they do. That’s why you see many six-figure-earning professionals who are pretty miserable.

      Then again, “do what you love” is easier said than done.

  • Chad

    I know this is going to sound crazy, but this is why it’s so easy to go to war. There is a large portion of the population desperate to be given a “purpose” and to be told what to do.

    When I lost my first job I remember sitting at home that night and smiling. I hadn’t lost sense of self…I had gained it back.

    @Andrea
    Shame I didn’t stumble across you on that website. I always seem to be sorting through the “cashiers.”

  • http://www.hereverycentcounts.com Her Every Cent Counts

    Love this post. I was just thinking about this very topic the other day. Even though it’s been years since I’ve painted and drawn on a regular basis, I still like to think of myself as an artist. But, moreso, I think of myself as a marketing person. My job does define me. I don’t know if I like what it feels like to be a marketing person. I’d rather be an artist. But I don’t have time to be one, not in a way where I could define myself as such. When I think about retirement, I can’t even contemplate retiring because I feel like I’ll lose my identity. I’d rather work until my last days and have that, then time and no meaning.

  • http://www.bravenewlife.com Brave New Life

    Tyler Durden would disagree. :)

    There was a time when I identified with my job. Then one day I woke up and my identification through my career was gone. I think it was around when my kids were born. My theory is that I replaced my old identity with my new identity of being a father.

    I’ll tell you what, not identifying with your job makes things hard. It makes it hard to connect with your peers that only identify with their job, and it makes it hard to get up and put your best effort in. I think this is also why I decided I wanted to retire extremely early – because I changed my identity and no longer needed my career. For now, I only keep working until I finish saving up the last part of my retirement funds.

    I guess my point is that your post is true for 99% of people, probably more. But as with anything, there are exceptions.

  • Chad

    That is exactly what gets us in trouble.

  • Big-D

    I look at this topic and realize that humans are simpletons in a lot of ways. We categorize information as quickly and succinctly as possible. What this means is we make generalizations. Name, religon, age, race, residence, occupation, etc. Those are simple things to start to get the basis of what people are. If you gave me those generalizations of a person, I can tell you a lot of things about that person and their personality with a rather large statistiacal certainty. Some call it profiling, call it what you will but it is what every human does.

    So what does this have to do with this topic? Simple, your career choice (type and length of employement) let me know if you are doing something you are good at and the characteristics of the person in that job. If someone is not definedor has no way to classify themselves, people have to work harder to classify them, which puts stress on them.

    I strive to be unclassifiable. I am currently unemployed and am having a hard time looking for a job. I can do so many things, that I just have a hard time making up my mind. Do I want to start my own business, work in IT again, teach, do nothing for the rest of my life? All of these are valid options. My identity is not tied to my career, just attributes about me. If I can make a living in the manner for which I am accustomed, I will do anything to get there.