Download our Conference Briefing by Dr Eva Selenko, for the March 2019 Cumberland Conference, 'Working Identities'
Work is an important part of identity and how people see themselves. Working identity or knowing who you are (in relation to work), helps people to know what to expect, how to behave and what to strive for in the future. It creates order and meaning in the social environment and helps with orientation.
However, working identity does not develop independently of the social environment; rather, it continuously evolves, changes and adapts to the environment. Sometimes, the influences of the social environment can be rather disruptive, and this is when identity threat, discontinuity or confusion can follow.
This Briefing provides an exploration of current thinking and research around working identities, to inform the Cumberland Lodge ‘Working Identities’ conference taking place in March 2019. It offers an analysis of current labour situations in relation to the effects they can have on identities and belonging.
The following key points are highlighted for discussion:
Working identities (which can be defined as peoples’ understandings of who they are, in relation to work) are both informed by, and inform, the social environment in which work takes place.
People need to enact their identities in positive encounters with others, in order to feel validated and confirmed in those identities.
New labour realities can pose particular challenges for people’s working identities: 1) They can provoke identity discontinuity/disruption, where people no longer feel able to enact the work identity they want to (e.g. because of unemployment, sectoral changes, technological changes to the existing job, or feelings of enforced ‘falseness’); 2) They can give rise to feelings of identity confusion, particularly when jobs fail to offer the necessary structures to allow for identity development; 2) They can limit peoples’ opportunities for positive social validation (e.g. because work is less visible, or the work/non-work situation is stigmatised).
New labour realities make identity particularly salient to people: workers want to understand what is happening to them, and to integrate this understanding into their own self-understanding. These labour realities can be perceived as ‘sense-breaking’, ‘meaningless’ or ‘excluding’ – all of which can be motivating factors in identity formation.
When confronted with these new labour realities, certain coping behaviours are observed amongst workers that can be ascribed to impacts on identity: 1) Nostalgia might be adopted as a strategy for dealing with disrupted identity; 2) Frustrated identity enactment might lead to aggression; 3) Occupational identity change might be observed, but only with certain preconditions.
It seems that giving people opportunities to enact new and more positive identities, or to experience greater social validation, can help them to navigate the choppy waters of 21st-century labour realities.