Am I my job?

There has often been a disconnect between how young individuals view themselves versus how they are viewed by others. With factors such as rising rent costs leading to the need to work longer hours in the day, an individual’s occupation has grown to fully encompass a person’s identity. This notion is as old as the earliest division of labour. It is a natural association, as some occupations are indeed associated with certain characteristics, such as physical strength in a construction worker, the deft hands of an artist, and athleticism in a sportsperson. One’s chosen occupation undoubtedly feeds into one’s identity, though the reverse may also be true.

Certain professions require, more than others, for one to have a greater association of identity with work, not simply requiring a daily routine working in an office environment. For instance, an artist’s identity has a bidirectional relationship with their work, their art. A military personnel has to put forth their work as a defender of the nation before anything else, and this feeds considerably into their identity. On the other hand, a data analyst may not like to base their entire identity on their work.

This interrelation between identity and occupation cannot be detangled purely, and how a person identifies themselves is largely a personal construct, an output of personal motivations and one’s environment. In today’s economy, where the world has moved on from primary sectors to more tertiary, service-based occupations, and trades and farming are no longer the only forms of economic engagement, more people are opting for occupations that suit their interests. Choice of occupation is one important way in which individuals express their identity. Of special note in the talk of occupation being one’s identity is the case of an artist. Every artist, be it a painter, photographer, or even writer, tends to associate all the work output with self-identity. The art is fed into by the artist’s perceived sense of self, and sense of his society and its constructs. Thus it can be safely said that the artist is highly likely to associate his identity with his work.

However, it must be noted that such a choice is a privilege, with some individuals getting a say in the decision of a profession whilst a considerable number work simply to maintain the lives of themselves and their kin, some even to put food on their tables. In the latter case, there may be a weaker link between occupation and self-identity than if the identity itself manifests into a profession. Values and beliefs play critical roles in designing a self-identity. If a profession is not in line with one’s belief structure, there is bound to be some sense of dissociation, which may lead the person to not entirely identify with the work they do.

In the modern context, most freshly educated individuals tend to start their careers with hopes of brilliance and early successes, which they end up working towards ardently and with full rigor. With more experience and education being required to enter some areas of the workforce than previous generations, achieving these milestones will imbue an individual with a sense of pride that they wish to hold onto. Some may go into a profession knowing themselves, for instance, a sportsperson is very likely to know herself as being interested in the field and capable of doing the job, which may then become her identity. However, this represents the lucky few. Most people who start off to simply participate in the workforce in order to pay back their student loans or to start becoming financially independent, tend to pick whatever opportunity presents itself first. Putting one’s entire sense of identity to solely one’s profession, however, sounds like a recipe for personal disaster. Compartmentalisation may work to a degree towards resolving such dilemmas, with association of one’s identity not only with work but also through personal relationships, hobbies and interests, and social interactions.

Workplaces tend to be where most people spend the larger part of their days. Being closely associated with one’s sense of belongingness, a person may strongly associate their identity with a group holding a particular worldview. There is a good chance that people around her would identify themselves being similar to her in some way, as she becomes adopted into the collective. In this way, one’s occupation is often skew or mask the minute differences between individual social identity, for that of the group. Dissociation between work environment and self-identity can be detrimental to an individual’s sense of self.

Identity is a dynamic construct. With every turn in life, a person associates self with a major dimension which may remain unchanged over life but most likely will alter. They may identify as a student but also as a daughter/sibling. Coming into adulthood, they may have multiple dimensions to their personality, adding to a more layered, and fully realised identity: say gender identity, social identity based on friends and interests, and then the most prominent, one’s work. This realization of a multi-dimensional identity is what forms a whole person. Profession, or rather chosen work, plays an integral role in its development. Even though it does not have an isolated effect, for a substantial populace, it is the primary definition of their identities.

The entire concept of identity is quite complex, with several personal traits and a number of inputs from environs contributing towards it. Identity is not simply a one-dimensional concept. Who a person is perceived to be is based on what they present outward. Occupation being the most salient aspect of one’s life is taken as a quick indicator of one’s identity, even as the individual themselves may identify more with other aspects of life. This cannot be known unless explicitly expressed. Some occupations allow for this expression more than others. There is no right or wrong when it comes to identity. Individuals associate self with whichever part of their personality is dominant, and if this feeds into their occupation, well and good, but even if it is the other way, when they relate themselves with their work more than any other aspect of self, it is not to be questioned. Knowing one’s whole identity can be a lifelong task, and even the greats of humanity have ventured to ask themselves whether they are simply what they do. To each, their own.