What’s one of the first things you ask when you meet someone new? ‘What do you do?’ And what’s the reply? A job title. Just think about that for a moment. Out of our whole lives, our whole existence, our whole identity, we choose to define ourselves by a job title.
This isn’t a new thing. And, in some ways, we’re less defined by our job titles than people used to be. Going back to the Middle Ages, people’s surnames were their job titles… Miller, Cobbler, Farmer, Baron, Bishop. More than this, if you were born a Miller, you almost certainly became a miller. Your trade, and therefore part of your identity, was defined before you were even born.
These days, we have so much more control and choice over what we do for a career. We follow passions, vocations, dreams… and that’s a good thing. But it can easily become all-consuming, to the cost of other parts of our identity.
So, let’s have a look at why we respond with a job title…
Why do we define ourselves by a job title?
Imagine the scene. You’re somewhere new… a friend’s birthday do, a summer fair at your child’s school, a new yoga club you’ve joined. People can glean a certain amount about who you are from the context. You’re someone’s friend, a mum or dad, a yoga fan. But that’s it. So the question ‘What do you do?’ will most probably follow. Why do we just give a job title? Here are some reasons…
- We’re living to work
While flexible working and work-from-home agreements are wonderful and a great step forward towards a better work-life balance, they can also mean that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of working, when, in fact, you could be doing something else – socialising with family or friends, spending time on a hobby, exercising, relaxing. Your ‘lack’ of free time slowly creeps in to the point where you don’t do much else other than work.
There’s an official term for this – enmeshment. Professor of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Anne Wilson, defines it as when a job is allowed to “eat up one’s time and identity, leaving less space for hobbies and interests. It makes it harder to connect with people who aren’t a part of your working life.”
- Society praises status
We live in a world that praises people who have important, high-powered careers, or interesting and exciting jobs. To the point that when your job title is seen as ‘ordinary’, you find yourself apologising or excusing the fact. Have you ever asked someone what they did to get a response of ‘Oh, I just work in a supermarket’, or ‘I’m an estate agent. I know, everyone hates me’. It’s such a shame that people feel that societal opinions and expectations define who they are.
- The taboo about sharing
There’s still an underlying taboo about sharing your personal life. People would see it as strange if your response to ‘What do you do?’ was ‘I run a lot, I have three kids and I’m a graphic designer’. It might be seen as an overshare. At the very least, it would take people aback that you haven’t led with your job title. But why? Wouldn’t it be lovely if, when you met someone for the first time, you found out more than their job? Even if it is in a professional environment.
The risk of living to work
While having a successful career or being happy in your job is definitely an important part of life for the majority of people, there are risks when it starts to take over.
More and more, we’re hearing of people suffering from burnout. They are simply working too much, and not taking time out of work to switch off and recharge. The incremental effects can lead to both physical and mental health issues.
As well as this, work is becoming so entwined with our identities that we lose a sense of who we are outside work. If someone then loses their job, they feel utterly lost. This can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
Work to live – how do we do it?
So, how do we ensure that we are working to live, instead of living to work? That our identity is more diversified and not just centred around our job title? If this article has resonated with you, then here are some changes you could make:
- Carve out ‘you’ time – make a conscious effort to book in time to socialise with family or friends, spend time on a hobby or get regular exercise. If you find yourself thinking, ‘I don’t have time’, it’s a sure sign that work is becoming too much part of your identity, possibly to an unhealthy level. It’s time to look at how you can free up time. Maybe delegate tasks or have the difficult, but necessary, talk with your boss about how you are overloaded at work.
- Shun the taboo of oversharing – next time someone asks what you do, give them more detail than just your job title. And make sure you encourage others to share too. As well as asking what they do as a job, ask them what they do in their spare time. The more people do it, the more normal it will seem. It might make you cringe at first, but it will open up more meaningful conversations and lead to a better connection with people.
- Take a lead from kids – when jobs aren’t part of the equation, kids still get to know each other fine and still have a strong sense of identity. Think of your childhood friends. You are probably less likely to think of them in such close relation to their job, but for who they are outside of work.
Of course, there will be people reading this that absolutely love their job and thrive off it being the biggest part of their identity. And that’s fine. But we bet there will be more people who aren’t happy with their work-life balance and would like to make some changes. Remember – identity is fluid and we have the power to change it.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so either comment below or join the conversation on our socials. What detail would you give about your personal life as well as your job title? Let’s get to know each other!
If you liked this article, you may also find this one interesting: Finding Your Place On Life’s Spectrums