How Does Paid Employment Affect Your Identity? Essay

From a very early age we are managed and socially constructed by schools, teachers and our parents. The purpose of this identification and expectation process is arguably the production of conformity to society’s expectations (Rehn, 2009). The question ‘What do you want to be when you’re older? ’ becomes ‘What do you do for work? ’ There is a constant pressure to conform to what society expects of us and employment has become one of the main ways in which we evaluate other people and their identity.

Grace and Woodward (2006) define two fundamental forms of identity. The way we portray ourselves to the outside world (personal identity) and our own subjective sense of knowing who we are (ego identity). I feel that it is crucial we fully comprehend the meaning of work and the effect employment may have on identity. People work for different reasons – most for economic reasons, some for ‘expressive’ reasons, and others, as a moral necessity or religious duty. Commitment and attitude to work appear increasingly more dynamic due to changes in the global economy.

According to Sennett (1988) these changes are leading to a corrosion of character, whilst Du Gay (1996) says an unpredictable identity has established that views life as an individual project of enterprise. James (2007) believes this mentality of ‘selfish capitalism’ has led to an epidemic called the ‘aflluenza virus’. I endeavour to explore these issues in relation to identity, and the implications this may have on my peers and I as we venture out into the world of employment.

Researchers working on a project entitled the Social Change and Economic Life Initiative (SCELI) (cited Noon & Blyton, 2006) questioned over 5000 people about their reasons for wanting to be employed. They found that the majority (68%) said they worked for the economic benefits, either to provide for basic essentials, or in the case of 27%, to acquire more buying power, implying people work for intrinsic rewards. However, Inglehart (1997) (cited Noon & Blyton, 2006) suggests that many people are opting for interesting and meaningful work, rather than high salaries.

This reflects a ‘post-materialist’ orientation to work, emphasising quality of life. Findings from SCELI indicated that 26% of employees do not work for monetary reasons, but for ‘expressive’ ones like enjoyment, achievement and satisfaction. Gallie and White (1993) (cited Noon & Blyton, 2006) found that the majority of people in all job categories would continue to work even if there was no financial need. Therefore, I believe it’s fair to argue that employment holds a large part in individual identity, as they’re reluctant to give that significant part of their life up, even if it wasn’t paid work.

Supporting this is evidence found in the Meaning of Working survey (MOW, 1987: 79-93). Out of five aspects of people’s lives (family, community, religion, leisure and work), respondents judged work as only second to family. This stresses the fact that work is a central life activity, and thus must be central to identity. Other reasons for working include moral necessities or religious duties towards employment. Being ‘in work’ often becomes morally desirable regardless of any financial or social benefit that may accrue.

Weber (1930) states this work ethic roots out of Protestantism in the seventeenth century. It deemed work to be a religious calling, through either the Lutheran belief that a state of grace could be achieved through endeavour, or the Calvinist doctrine of predestination whereby work is a means of earning Gods favour and achieving salvation. The Protestant work ethic became the foundation upon which the ideology of work associated with both industrialisation and capitalism was built. Modern day companies like Wal-Mart recgonises this work ethic for example, and prefers to employ protestants.

Even though controversial, they believe Protestant’s work ethic is more valuable than regular employees. Other religions such as Islam, Catholicism and Buddhism also adhere to the work ethic, and emphasise the value and importance of duty, commitment, effort and obedience. This Religious attachment to work can only increase the importance of it within ones individual identity, especially more than any economic reasons for work. In my opinion, this association with religion gives employment a more meaningful purpose and enables work to more deeply impact ones identity.

However, an important thing to consider is the dynamically changing business world, and how this may affect the impact paid employment may have on identity. As Du Gay (1996) states ‘the ‘economic’ is a culturally and historically malleable category, and, thus, that any established economic identity is in essence a contingent identity. ’ This poses a problem for the meaning of work. Modern organisations demand ‘total and passionate commitment’ to work, and we are encouraged to be what we do.

Yet employment is becoming increasingly more precarious and job roles are more imprecise than ever, thus there is a lack of inherent meaning in work. This could decrease the effect employment may have on our personal identities, as work is unpredictable and ever-changing, so why would one consider their employment part of their identity if they are unsure it will remain? This paradox of being encouraged to be what we do, yet lacking inherent meaning within our work making it difficult to do exactly that, links to The Corrosion of Character theory proposed by Sennett (1998).

Industrial work may be dull unless it enables a pursuit of more meaningful activities, or contributes to character through length of service or commitment to the organisation. Societal changes however, have disabled this. Short-term contracts, a lack of community, downsizing, budget cuts, requirement to take risks, and individualism have all led to this erosion of commitment, trust and loyalty to ones employer. December this year is a prime example of this, when tens of thousands protested around the UK as part of a public sector strike over pension cuts, disrupting schools, hospitals and other services (BBC, 2011).

This made me re-evaluate the effect of employment on identity. Striking public sector workers are constantly showing disloyalty towards their job; with unions opposing plans to make members pay more and work longer to earn pensions. Ehrenreich (2005) portrays the American equivalent of this phenomenon: ‘Middle-class Americans… have been raised with the old-time protestant expectation that hard work will be rewarded with material comfort and security… (But this) is increasingly untrue of the educated middle class that stocks out bureaucracies’.

I believe this concept is becoming increasingly more evident in recent years. Job security has overtaken career progression this year as the main factor influencing London City workers choices of changing jobs (Recruiter, 2011). People seem to lack control of their career and where it is heading. I strongly feel that this may alter employments effect on identity as it is no longer predictable and will vary depending on people’s employment situation with regards to security and long-term prospects.

This concept of identity being constantly affected by changes in it’s external environment (in this case – ones employment situation), is supported by Du Gay (1996) who states ‘Given that identity is basically relational to its conditions of existence, any change in the latter is bound to effect the former’. I believe identity work by Goffman (1959) is somewhat related to this. He believes that people actively manage their identity (identity management) and adjust it to certain situations.

In my opinion, this applies very well in a modern context where workers employment circumstances are rarely constant, and people are forced to adapt. Goffman uses dramaturgical metaphors to represent the way employees act in particular jobs or situations. Social identity, he argues, is like acting, where individuals attempt to present a consistent and believable performance. Work itself is a performance, where employees will use dress, language and props to construct their perceived identity among co-workers.

In a modern context, where saying the ‘right’ thing and looking ‘right’ is extremely important, Goffman’s theory becomes more viable. I have experienced this on multiple occasions where employees present a false front (surface acting) in order to provide the best service to the customer (e. g. my bank branch, retail outlets…). I have even felt the need to do this myself, by presenting an enthusiastic, smartly dressed and professional self to potential employers in order to get a job, rather than presenting my ‘everyday’ self.

According to Grace and Woodward (2006) then, if Goffman’s theory is true, work only has an effect on our personal identity (the way we portray ourselves to the outside world), whilst perhaps our most important form of identity, our ego identity (our subjective sense of who we are), is unaffected. Thus, the effect may not be as influential on us as many propose. Du Gay (1996) also claims ‘Changes in the global economy have problematised the patriarchal hierarchies through which the fixed, stable, identity of the modern worker was established (Du Gay 1996).

He believes this has led to ‘entrepreneurial identities’, in which identities are no longer predictable, and individuals view life as a project of enterprise. Graham Burchell (1993: 275) has also written literature on the theory, and supports Du Gay in the belief that entrepreneurial governance is the ‘generalisation of “enterprise form” to all forms of conduct – the conduct of organizations hitherto… to governments and to the individual themselves’. Du Gay believes one of the reasons this has occurred is due to the role of contracts redefining social relations.

Contractualisation usually consists of assigning total responsibility of a function or an activity to a management unit. Thus, these units, in effect, are assuming their own identity, one that is required to be entrepreneurial in order to be effective. This requires the individuals to become personally exposed to the risks and costs involved, and are thus encouraged to build on their own capabilities, rather than relying on others. This means no matter what the circumstances, the individual is continuously engaged in shaping their lives.

In my opinion, this has come into fruition. People seem to have to fend more for their own career and fight for their own achievements, rather than having the ability to rely solely on a secure, long-term employer, or stable political party for example. I will have to consider this when I enter the job market, and respond to this competitiveness, perhaps selfish nature of the market in the appropriate way, maybe having no choice but to adopt this approach myself. James (2007) applies Du Gay’s theory of ‘entrepreneurial identities’ in a more modern-day context.

He believes that ‘Selfish-capitalism’ and the prizing of endless increases in material wealth (‘the having mode’) will lead to feelings of worthlessness and dissatisfaction, rather than a better quality of life. He captures these feelings with the metaphor of disease. Proponents claim many of those who become wealthy will find economic success only leads to a desire for more, only to find that they’re unable to get pleasure from these further increases in material wealth. It will only dominate their time and thoughts, to the detriment of relationships and happiness.

This has led to an epidemic, which James (2007) calls the ‘affluenza virus’, of which symptoms include: insecurity, alienation, feelings of incompetence and inauthenticity. Thus, a worker experiencing affluenza must be experiencing adverse effects on their identity, nevertheless, a profound one, taking dominance over their personal lives. To conclude, it seems we have entered into a period of post-materialism, where people often work for expressive reasons over financial ones. The positive and profound effect this has on identity means many people would still work even if there were no financial incentive involved.

Employments effect on identity for those workers that have adopted the protestant ethic of work from the seventeenth century may be even more deep-seated. However, the working environment is unpredictable and constantly changing, job contracts are becoming increasingly short-term and job security is often in question. This has led to employment lacking inherent meaning. Workers are constantly told to commit themselves to the job, but this is often difficult due to the precarious nature of modern day employment. Employees seem to lack control of their career and the direction it is heading.

Thus, employments effect on identity may be unpredictable, just as the nature of employment itself. I also believe Goffman’s (1959) theory has somewhat prevailed in recent years, forced into fruition by economic forces forcing employees to act in certain ways, and to be what they do. This has had a profound effect on personal identity, according to Grace and Woodward’s (2006) definition. But not on the ego identity, which is perhaps the most important definition as it is our perception of ourselves, rather than how we choose to portray ourselves to others.

Structural changes in the economic environment have also led to ‘entrepreneurial identities’, in which people are now solely responsible for their own achievements. Employments effect on identity may thus vary more between individuals, with people holding different priorities of what is important to them. James (2007) would argue that all these effects have accumulated in the ‘affluenza virus’, where a ‘having mode’ of constant acquisition has a profound negative effect on workers identities, even taking the pleasure out of other aspects of life.