A reflective blog by Inna Thalmann, Cumberland Lodge Scholar based in the Health Economics Research Centre, University of Oxford
What are the challenges of new labour realities for people’s working identities? How can we positively define ourselves through work, especially in times of changing work environments? With these questions in mind, I set out on my journey from Oxford to Windsor, excited to attend the two-day Cumberland Conference on ‘Working Identities’.
‘Working identity’ describes a person’s understanding of who they are in relation to their work, and the conference sought to explore how the changing nature of employment influences people’s identities and sense of belonging. It brought together students and academics, journalists, with representatives of think tanks and research organisations, charities, and leadership and entrepreneurship centres. Through round-table discussions, it sought to engage us in a critical examination of contemporary working identities from a variety of angles, and to contribute towards practical, policy-focused recommendations.
The two-day programme launched with discussions on the contemporary relevance of working-class identities in Britain. Data highlighted reveals that, perhaps surprisingly, the majority of Britons identify themselves as ‘working class’, regardless of their occupation type. This discrepancy in self-perception, combined with a narrow pool of political representation, persistently widens the gap in political participation. The session incited a lively debate as to whether the political system should strengthen working-class identity and augment its political representation, and whether the fostering of class labels will lead to further social divisiveness. Regardless of the different perspectives represented, the session demonstrated the need to define identities and distinguish between different contributing factors, including the role of self-perception and identification based on social experience.
Dr Brendan Burchell (University of Cambridge), Professor Ursula Huws (University of Hertfordshire) and Dr Alex Wood (Oxford Internet Institute) invited us to question both traditional and emerging models of employment in an era of platform-based economies. For instance, as short-term contracts become more prevalent in the labour market, digital platforms are widely used to manage an on-demand workforce. Whilst this model has the potential to empower individuals with greater autonomy over their working day, digital platform-based economies are driven by ratings and algorithmic control, and characterised by weak labour protection, which can all lead to overwork and new forms of work insecurity. This point, in particular, prompted captivating debates on how to strengthen, empower and invest in digital platform work communities, which endured throughout dinner, on to drinks and late into the evening.
As a new day began, we gathered early to attend another eye-opening presentation on the impact of unemployment on personal identity and sense of belonging. With media playing a crucial role in shaping the discourse around the topic, the session ended with an appeal to foster more inclusive societies by creating and nurturing positive identities, regardless of employment status or type.
To mark the end of this thought-provoking conference, we were given an opportunity to reflect on all the different themes and key learning points covered across the six sessions. In an energised round of debates, all participants collaborated in helping to develop policy-focused recommendations. For me, getting together with individuals with such diverse backgrounds and perspectives, to turn ideas into coherent policy ideas, constituted the most rewarding experience of the conference.
After further review and refinement, these recommendations will ultimately form the basis of an independent, cross-sector report, which will be made publicly available and presented directly to parliamentarians and policymakers in Westminster. Overall, the conference, with its focus on small, round-table discussions, stimulated diverse thought from all of its participants. We were challenged to reflect on our own understanding of pressing issues surrounding work identities, and to ultimately translate solution-oriented thinking into action.