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

10 Replies to “the loss of a job and the reconstruction of identity”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Pingback: The Art of Getting Fired, in 7 Steps… | De'Keither

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