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