Young bearded man wearing party hat and formal shirt, looking with great hesitation into camera

Is your work your identity?

Ever been at a party and been asked ‘what do you do?’

Have you ever noticed when meeting new people, often one of their first questions is ‘what do you do?’ Although you can respond in a number of ways, most people answer with their job title or description of their work.

For example:

  • I am a doctor working in X hospital.
  • I work at X supermarket stacking shelves.
  • I manage a team of telemarketers at X.

To what extent does work define who we are and how we feel about ourselves?

How you answer this question will be influenced by your upbringing and personal values, along with the ingrained cultural and societal values where you live. In many countries ‘what you do’ in terms of work very much defines ‘who you are’ in society. Is your country one of them?

Take a moment to reflect on your own experiences of meeting people for the first time. Have you ever made initial assumptions about a person’s standing in society, their intelligence, income level or values based on what they do for work? Also reflect on whether you have felt judged because of what you do or don’t do for work?

What if you’re unemployed?

So, what happens when you are not working, because you have an injury or lost your job or you are raising children? Given the value society tends to attach to employment, how does not working affect how we feel about ourselves or how we engage with people we meet in social settings?

Apart from ideas of status, there are other motivations at play when people choose the work they do.

Society’s judgement of what people do for work can impact dramatically on individual career choices. However, there are other values that impact on the way people feel about their work and career. Can you relate to any of the values listed below?

1. Intrinsic values

These values affect our motivation and feelings of job satisfaction. For example, helping others, expressing creativity or experiencing excitement at work. What type of work satisfies you?

2. Extrinsic values

These are the rewards or conditions that often trap people in jobs they don’t particularly enjoy. The obvious example here is income. Can you think of others?

3. Lifestyle values

These are personal values, such as the importance of having time for your family, sporting or health commitments or living in a particular type of place (such as in the country or in the city).

By the way, here are three excellent arguments for not allowing what you do for work to define your self-worth.

  1. Only a third of our time as working age adults is actually spent working. Two thirds of your time is spent on other things, such as spending time with our family, leisure activities and sleeping.
  2. If you lose your job because of a company restructure, do you stop being who you are? Of course not! You still have the same values, goals and interests.
  3. In the modern world of work, people don’t do one type of job or even have one defined career path. Jobs and career directions change.

Don’t allow your current work to be the only thing that defines who you are.

Your task

Take a moment to reflect on the following questions and then post your response to one or more in the comments section below.

  • Is work connected to your sense of self-worth? Also consider friends, family and your wider community.
  • To what extent do you think work identifies people in our society?
  • What do you think people value most about their work, regardless of whether it’s paid or unpaid?

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This article is from the free online course:

Realising Career Potential: Rethinking Disability

Griffith University