Work and Identity: How Are They Related?

You have a tendency to identify with your work. However, by taking this dimension as the basis for building your identity, you take on certain risks.
Work and Identity: How Are They Related?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 25 October, 2022

When you meet a new person, one of the first questions you usually ask is “What do you do for a living?” In fact, we all tend to structure our own identities and those of others based on our occupations. This is positive in that it allows you to assign yourself certain roles, feel part of a group, and differentiate yourself from the rest. However, when your work and identity are excessively related, you might have a problem.

The identity you form that’s linked to your work is, first and foremost, your own. It leads you to perceive yourself in a certain way and to orient yourself toward certain activities, values, and attitudes. However, it’s also social, since others value you positively or negatively depending on your role and type of job. So how does this affect you?

Identity

Identity is a construct that defines who you are and allows you to distinguish yourself from others. It’s the definition of what you are or want to be, made by yourself and others based on the categories to which you belong. Your identity is built through socialization processes. In fact, you shape it as you interact with others and with your environment.

This process is carried out through social agents; that is, all the people or institutions with which you interact. Therefore, your family is your first group of belonging and forms your primary identity. Later, this is expanded and shaped through school and social groups. Upon reaching adulthood, your work is one of the great backbones of your identity.

Woman thinking
According to our work, we acquire a series of values and attitudes.

The centrality of work: how important is your job?

Work not only allows you to subsist economically, but it also gives meaning to your life and helps you to integrate and participate in society. In addition, it contributes greatly to giving you a personal and social identity. The reasons for this are as follows:

  • You spend a significant amount of time preparing and training for work.
  • Others identify you with the kind of work you do.
  • Depending on the job, you achieve a certain status and play particular roles.
  • Again, depending on the work you do, you acquire a series of values, attitudes, and a certain conscience.
  • Through participation in a specific job, you join different segments of the social fabric. From there, you relate to people and institutions.

In short, others read you based on your job and it’s from their perspective that you build or nuance an awareness of yourself.

However, despite the fact that work is a major component of the identity of most people, not all give it the same weight. In fact, it’s a subjective construct known as job centrality. This designates the general belief about the value of work in people’s lives. It’s an individual dimension. In other words, each person identifies to a degree with their work and considers it more or less central to their identity.

The relationship between work and identity

Many of us build our identities based on our work history. If this is the case, you might deeply identify with:

  • Your job category.
  • The functions it performs.
  • The status you hold.
  • The people with whom you interact at work.
  • The company you work for.
  • The recognition you get for your job performance.
  • A specific culture that’s built on the basis of shared values, beliefs, and attitudes in the organization.

Although this is a natural process, it’s also a double-edged sword. For instance, when you experience success, stability, or professional growth, the association between your work and your identity benefits you. Consequently, you feel useful, important, valuable, and successful.

However,  when your work reality isn’t what you expected, the emotional and psychological blow can be profound. This can happen in the event of dismissal or change of career path, in a situation of unemployment, or, more frequently, during retirement. At these times, fundamental changes occur in the way you see yourself and how others see you. In effect, it’s not only your economic sustenance that’s lost but also the roles and social meanings you previously held.

Sad man at the window
There are people who build their identity according to their work history.

Consequences of a strong association between work and identity

Within the social representations of work (that is, positively or negatively charged stereotypes, opinions, and values), unemployment and retirement have negative connotations. Unsurprisingly, this can affect self-concept. For example, the individual may begin to perceive themselves as worthless, purposeless, invisible, or useless to society. This can lead to mental health problems.

Anxiety and stress, frustration, life dissatisfaction, and lack of self-confidence are some of the main consequences. In addition, if these situations aren’t managed properly, they can end up affecting the individual’s physical health and can lead to severe conditions such as depression.

For this reason, despite the fact that work will always be part of your identity, it’s important that you have sufficient cognitive flexibility so as not to make it the center of your existence. In a world marked by job insecurity and instability, and given that retirement is an unavoidable destination for everyone, the healthiest thing is to forge a healthy identity that’s maintained even in times of change.

Maybe it’s time to ask yourself, aside from your job, who are you? How you answer this question might prove to be a veiled invitation for you to do an internal review and adjust the identification you have with your occupation.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.