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How much of your identity is in your work? Is it working for you?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When you meet someone new, you probably often say “What do you do?” For some people it’s pretty straight forward and for others… not so much. In fact, last December the Wall Street Journal did a piece on how to prepare for family gatherings when you are dreading being asked about work.

For better or worse, our society considers our work to be a huge part of our identity, and, in turn, our success. And in some circles, it’s not enough just to be working full-time. We admire people that sacrifice big paychecks to follow “noble” professions. We are impressed by jobs that require advanced degrees. People who make six or seven figures are euphemistically referred to as very successful.”

There was a brief, but magical, period during the pandemic that America’s perspective on certain jobs was turned on its head. Jobs that had previously been labeled as minimum wage, or more insultingly, “unskilled” such as grocery store workers, cleaning crews, and delivery people we suddenly celebrated with the title essential– though not celebrated monetarily. I remember a father of young children was quoted in the New York Times as saying that after a few months of home schooling he believed teachers should be paid the same as CEOs. I wonder if we tracked him down he would advocate as strongly now that his kids are back in school.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When I moved back to Nantucket after three tough years in New York, I needed to find work fast. A friend said, “What about applying at Stop & Shop. They are always hiring.” I scoffed and said, “I’m not going to work at Stop & Shop.” In my defense, my reluctance had more to do with the fear of being so visible and running into people I wished to avoid rather than feeling superior to working in a grocery store.

But here’s the thing. Not everyone's identity is dominated by what they do for a living. My friend Adam works in the deli at Stop & Shop, and he has been there for as long as I have known him, so at least 15 years. I imagine there are parts of his job that are not that glamorous, but guess what? Stop & Shop is a union shop, so he gets good pay, housing, vacation time and benefits. And outside of work, Adam’s job has allowed him to take spectacular vacations, and pursue other passions like acting. In fact, he has appeared more than once as an extra on his favorite soap opera Days of Our Lives. How’s that for glamorous?

For some people their career and their identity are entwined or even one and the same. My work has been a large part of my identity, and it’s mostly served me well. Most of the jobs I’ve had, including the one I started last month, are closely aligned with my values and skills. The curse of this can be that frustrations, failures and challenges at work feel much more personal than maybe they should. 

The desire to find identity in one’s career is somewhat generational. I was born in 1982, and I’m what is sometimes referred to as an “elder millennial.” I’m also the youngest of three siblings, which I think skews my perspective a bit older than someone my age with younger siblings. My dad had one job for almost his entire career, and reaped the rewards of that loyalty. He and my mom were able to buy a house, raise three kids and send them to college and adequately save for a comfortable retirement. Without going down the rabbit hole of how jobs like the one my dad had are nearly extinct, suffice it to say the job market has changed. 

But also values around work/life balance have changed for many people my age and younger. Knowing we’ll spend a significant amount of our life working, it’s not entirely unreasonable to want it to mean something more than a paycheck.

Generational influences and job market realities aside, how much one’s identity is defined by what they do for a living runs along a spectrum and will likely change as other identities come into play– relationships, kids, home-ownership, age, etc.

None of it is necessarily right or wrong. I think a lot of the dissatisfaction people experience as they wrestle with this dilemma comes from placing too much importance on external expectations. We let others dictate what our careers say about us. You’re a Starbucks barista therefore you’re also “x”. You’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company therefore “y” is true about you. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you reflect on how your identity is (or is not) defined by how you make a living:

  • If you drew two circles, one for your identity and one for your career, how much would they overlap?

  • If your career were a more significant part of your identity, who would you want to be?

  • If your career were a much smaller part of your identity, how would things be different?

  • When you think about winding down your career (or maybe you already have) how will your identity be affected?


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