the loss of a job and the reconstruction of identity

Here comes the sun...


I’ve known a number of retired 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.
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 before.  That changed a lot of what I thought about myself.  Since we are planning to move to a new city, it will of course be easier to find a new job – as an auditor – and return to my previous life.  It will redefine 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 the 9-to-5.

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 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.  Now that I’m unemployed, I find it difficult.  I flinched the first time I had to say that I was unemployed.  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 professional.

But the reconstruction of identity, separate from a job, is a critical part of the unemployment process. I know that for me to become a writer (or whatever else I want to become) I have to think of myself in those terms.  I can’t think of myself as an unemployed auditor, I have to think of myself as a gainfully self-employed writer.  That makes me much happier, of course, and helps me in forming my new identity.

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 women (and men) being a parent is not enough.  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.investoralist.com/ Dana

    Great point here. It's hard to detach one's job from one's identity, yet so much of who we are never come out in a corporate or 9-5 setting. I wonder what technology and entrepreneurism can bring to the table when it comes to reconciling one's corporate and individual identities.

  • https://www.budgetpulse.com/ craig

    Our jobs are a huge part of our identity because it's a huge and very important aspect to our lives. I think as technology grows, and more freelance and technology based jobs create less 9-5 typical jobs, this may change, but until then it won't.

  • http://www.chieffamilyofficer.com Cathy @ Chief Family Officer

    You bring up an interesting point. I don't intend to remain a lawyer forever, not even til retirement age – but I have wondered how I'll feel when I can no longer tell people that I'm a lawyer. It's such an easy answer, and I have to admit that I don't mind the identity that people automatically attribute to me. While lawyers as a group have a bad reputation, most people react pretty well to meeting a lawyer in person. I think it will be very weird not having that instant layer of . . . credibility? respectability? whatever it is.

  • http://plonkee.com plonkee

    It's not surprising that what you do for money forms a large part of your identity – most people spend getting on for a quarter of their time working, and it earns your a certain status. I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with that, and if you can be an auditor who writes in his spare time, then you can certainly be a writer who audits in his spare time if you want to be. I hear writing gives quite a lot of spare time.

  • TStrump

    I look forward to the day when someone asks me what I do, I will answer 'independently wealthy'.
    I will have no problem giving up my job when the time comes.

  • http://amoderngal.com ElizabethG

    What about, “I'm a serial entrepreneur”

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  • fern

    For me, the best way to combat possible boredom or inertia would be to transition into retirement so that i continue to work a par-time job and maybe do some volunteer work too. Most people work best with some sort of structure to their day. I would create a weekly structure that included things like regular exericse, social get-togethers with friends, work and volunteerism, plus hobbies.

  • fern

    For me, the best way to combat possible boredom or inertia would be to transition into retirement so that i continue to work a par-time job and maybe do some volunteer work too. Most people work best with some sort of structure to their day. I would create a weekly structure that included things like regular exericse, social get-togethers with friends, work and volunteerism, plus hobbies.

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