The morning after the Working Identities report launch at The QEII Centre, Westminster, on 27 November 2019, I woke up feeling optimistic about my future as a PhD student transitioning into an academic research career.
Working Identities explores ways of creating a more fulfilling future for workers in the UK and beyond, and the event led me to reflect on my own role in helping to bring about this positive future.
By publishing a new, cross-sector report, Cumberland Lodge is encouraging us to explore the meaning and impacts of identities and belonging in the workplace. The report gives insights into the rapidly-changing world of work and sheds light on its wide-ranging implications on individuals and society as a whole, in an effort to make the world a better place.
This report was written after a two-day conference that highlighted some of the many ways in which work affects identity, and how identity, in turn, affects people’s behaviour. A subsequent ,expert consultation reviewed all the recommendations and points of view that emerged from these discussions, to help Cumberland Lodge produce its final report.
At the report launch, there was a warm welcome from Edmund Newell, Chief Executive of Cumberland Lodge, followed by an insightful talk from Dr Eva Selenko, psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Work Psychology at Loughborough University, and author of the Working Identities report.
Dr Selenko explained her research journey and discussed, in academic terms, how work can affect and shape identities. She explained that her report draws on the collective wisdom and experience of trade unions representatives, working rights campaigners, academics, non-governmental organisations, policymakers and community practitioners and addresses five key areas of working life:
- ‘Working-class’ identities
- ‘Precarious’ work and young people
- Digital, meaningless jobs
- Youth unemployment
- The impact of structural discrimination.
Dr Selenko then invited the panel of experts to reflect on, and to exchange views about the report.
Jacqueline O’Reilly, Professor of Comparative Human Resource Management at the University of Sussex, described how work matters, not only with regard to financial gain, but equally to technology in this digital age.
Her main point was about adaptability; she referred to young peoples’ efficiency and willingness to adopt new technologies, in particular, and she commented on how organisations should take advantage of this, to people build more positive identities around work and improve their working lives.
The panel discussion continued with Kate Bell, Head of Rights, International, Social and Economics Department at Trades Union Congress, who spoke about the housing shortage and the climate emergency, and the impact of these challenges in Britain today, stressing that these crises are an opportunity for urgent thinking.She pondered over what we mean by ‘working class’ and discussed the financial and gendered aspects of this identity, which can often lead to discrimination in the workplace.
Her main point was about moving away from class-based identities in public discourse and shifting the focus towards more inclusive and broader aspects of our working identities. Kate argued that it is important to collaborate and invest resource for the benefit of the ‘working classes’, who have been hardest hit by changes in the UK’s labour market.
Mark Littlewood, Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, offered further reflections on the report, this time focusing on the importance of providing the right opportunities for people, ensuring inclusivity at work and beyond, and tackling discrimination through legislation and community structures. He offered an analysis of the labour situation in the UK today, in relation to its impact on identities and belonging.
Guests posed some interesting and intelligent questions to the panel, and discussions continued amicably over a drinks reception, where further ideas, opinions and views were exchanged. One of the many things that I took away with me was that, “people don’t get to know who you are by you telling them, but rather from your own actions and work”.
In Ed Newell’s reflections, he said, “we look forward to seeing how this [report] inspires policymakers and practitioners to reflect upon – and take positive action to improve – people’s working lives, both now and in the future.”
This encouraged me to reflect on how I could personally make use of the key themes and recommendations, not only to have a positive impact here in the UK, but also to help rebuild my own society back home in Syria after eight years of war, and to improve the social environment in the workplace everywhere I go.
People need to enact their identities in a positive way in their encounters with others, in order to feel validated and to feel that they belong. When we question our fundamental understandings of work, and explore new ideas for re-evaluating the values we associate with it, we can develop a multitude of novel suggestions for how our working lives and wellbeing might be improved and, in turn, make the world a more peaceful, open and inclusive place to live.