A blog on key themes of discussion from our Working Identities conference in March 2019, by Research Associate, Dr Eva Selenko

Published Date: 
Tuesday, 9 April 2019
Dr Eva Selenko, Cumberland Lodge Research Associate

What happens if you invite 30 experts to the reflective setting of Cumberland Lodge, and actively encourage a two-day, cross-sector dialogue on identity and work? Critical thoughts on new ways forward.

Early in March, 30 people, mostly strangers – including scholars at the forefront of identity research, union representatives, NGO leaders, policymakers and students from a range of disciplines – met to exchange views on work and its impacts on identity and belonging.  The final outcome of the two-day conference will be a policy-focused report, carving out challenges and potential ways forward. This blog gives a brief glimpse into the discussion process, and serves as a taster of some of the themes that developed.

A country house in a royal park can be slightly intimidating at first glance, but once you are inside, Cumberland Lodge reveals its warm welcome. Through its charitable resources, it is able to offer both the space and facilities to bring together different people and host them in a comfortable yet familial way, thereby creating a sense of community. Cumberland Conferences invite people from different segments of society and encourage conversations: no matter what their background or perspectives, everyone’s opinions are heard as equal voices in an open and inclusive dialogue. Within a glorious and stimulating setting, this experience generates the sense of shared purpose, for the duration of the conference and beyond. The following outlines some of the key take-home messages.

The class system might have changed, but people’s understanding of it hasn’t.

The 20th century saw dramatic changes in industry sectors, jobs and class structure in Britain. Today, most people work in ‘middle-class’ jobs, but, when prompted, a majority still thinks of themselves as ‘working class’. It seems that having a degree does not buy a middle-class identity anymore. Why is that, and what is achieved by declaring oneself as ‘working-class’? Which group boundaries are enforced, and who is excluded?

Delegates at Working Identities conference at Cumberland Lodge, March 2019

Class labels, it seems, are still important to people, because they show loyalty to common roots, they might signal a fashionable cultural dimension, and they can generate a sense of shared identity. But labels can also be abused to create division: they have the potential to exclude people, particularly when they idealise a certain group over another.

And then there is a new class of the ‘precariat’: people who don’t have a ‘voice’, and have little with which to develop a positive, common identity. Their unions have been demolished, their communities have experienced deep cuts, their children find themselves in low-paid, zero-hours jobs – and this all creates a climate of deep pessimism for the future.

Digitalisation of jobs bears risks and opportunities for working identities.

Could digitalisation be one way into a better future of work – away from drudgery, and towards more leisure time? Several implications of the digitalisation of work were explored.

First of all, how much work does a person actually need to do? Four days per week, as suggested by the TUC? But why work four days, when – from a wellbeing perspective – as little as eight hours suffices, according to research?

Secondly, digital platform work might bring flexibility, but it can also bring new forms of precarity – so-called ‘algorithmic insecurity’, which requires the skills to deliver a service that both pleases the customer and receives a good rating. Workers in the digital platform economy tend to simultaneously perceive themselves as autonomous, independent entrepreneurs, whilst also feeling powerless and exposed towards the wills of a rating or an algorithm. This is where a new need for collective bargaining power and solidarity arises. From a union perspective, digital tools could help to organise people across borders more effectively, and thus create a new kind of global working identity.

What seems to be core is that people working in digital economies get a fair share of the wealth they produce. Rather than leaving services provided by apps in the hands of a few, why not make them a public good? One thing seems certain: work in the digital age needs to be (re)designed in a way that allows for a continuing sense of pride and identity.

Current understandings of work hinder people of different race, gender, disability or religion.

Work is not just work. Race, gender, disability and religion all shape the contexts in which people operate, and their opportunities for positive, social self-validation. Depending on their race, gender, disability status or religion, people can identify as (or be identified as) part of the prototypical majority or the stigmatised minority, in the world of work.  A couple of themes cut across all of the discussions on this issue:

Feeling underrepresented in workplaces taints who you think you could be.

There were a multitude of examples that highlighted a sense of ‘not belonging’ to a particular workplace or type of work, with substantial impacts on future career paths. If people feel that there is no-one like them, with their kind of experience or background, in an organisation or occupation, they will be more likely to feel that certain work situations or career opportunities ‘are not for them’.

Structural discrimination enforces under-representation.

Under-representation does not happen by chance: there are structural reasons for it. For example, there are fewer women in leading positions, in part because childcare is still predominantly regarded as a female duty, and professional childcare is prohibitively expensive. People with disabilities are also under-represented in the workplace, because of prevailing prejudices about abilities to work effectively.

Being stigmatised while also finding solace

While structural discrimination affects working realities, people can also find solace and a sense of community in their respective groups. For example, a strong religious identity could make a person a target for bullying, but it could also be a source of meaning and support.

There are very real consequences of unemployment stigma – for which we are all responsible.

Speakers at Working Identities conference at Cumberland Lodge, March 2019


The final theme that this conference explored was on the edges of the world of work: unemployment. In interviews carried out by one of the keynote speakers, with young, unemployed people from low-income backgrounds, ideas about identity and stigmatisation are repeatedly mentioned. Respondents have the impression that they are being looked down on as failures, and feel there is no hope in applying for jobs.

Perhaps this is not very surprising, considering that many of the social institutions that used to offer room for positive self-expression (e.g., youth clubs) have been dismantled in recent years. Also, public discourse is partly responsible: according to data drawn from a systematic content analysis of UK party leaders’ speeches and national newspapers, there is now a more negative view towards unemployed people than there was ten years ago.

In summary, the two-day conference highlighted some of the many ways in which work affects identity, and how identity, in turn, affects people’s behaviour.

We questioned fundamental understandings of work, we explored radical ideas for re-evaluating the values we associate with work, and we developed a multitude of novel suggestions for how work (and wellbeing) could be improved (whilst agreeing that we could all perhaps do with a little less work in our lives, altogether).