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Individual identity is defined by similarity, sense of belonging and recognition we feel from others around us, similar or difference from us. It is only by categorizing ourselves and others that we are able to know those who are similar to us and those who are not (Sarup & Raja, 1996). The symbols we wear and the company we keep are critical in identifying or categorizing ourselves and others. For instance uniforms, club membership, employment, the type of car we own, and even the language we speak are often used by others to identify or associate us with a particular group of people. Just by wearing a police uniform, for example, is a loud declaration to the public that we belong to a specific group. According to Sarup and Raja (1996), for one to be recognized with a particular group of people, he/she must be sharing the collective identity of that particular group. While employment has a profound effect on shaping one’s identity, different employments may have different effects on self identity. From cleaners, doctors, volunteers, security guards to cashiers, society has a way of categorizing individuals based on the nature of the work they do and the social status assigned to a particular job cadre. This paper explores how paid employment influences identity drawing from my personal experiences. In doing so, the paper will draw from various theoretical arguments fronted in various literatures on how work influences individual identity.
Employment is a very important factor in identifying people’s class and status in the society. Once an individual’s occupation is known, it would be easier to make assumptions about his or her political persuasions and sometimes religious background. More often than not, we hear people ask others in most social encounters ‘what do you do’, which usually mean one’s occupation. Society’s discernment of different occupation varies. For instance, the way doctors are perceived in the society is different from how security guards are perceived. Therefore, how one perceives him/herself will be influenced by what the society says about their jobs and ultimately will influence their identity as well. Du Gay (1996) argues that a number of changes in the western world have brought with them a number of diverse and rapid changes in contemporary life. These changes, associated with emergence of new technologies and increased societal expectations have led to insecurities and uncertainties of work identity.
According to Protestants’ teachings, employment is seen as a vocation. In essence, it is a calling from God to do what is right and virtuous before Him. In what Weber (1930), described as Protestants ethic, the perception of society has been shaped by the values of the Protestantism who consider employment not only as a necessary suffering that everybody must embrace but also as a virtue based on the notion of industriousness (cited in Bell, 2011). Therefore, according to this school of thought, paid employment should be seen as a tool for forming individual identity. In other words, paid employment will enable me to identity with a particular religious belief or group. While this belief has somehow changed over the years, the influence of work on individual religious identity is still widespread. For instance, getting paid employment at the age of 20 now would be great and thus I would consider it a blessing from God. And to show my gratitude, I may decide to give a testimony of the God’s blessing and to continuously contribute a part of my earnings to the church. In essence, such employment will be important in reinforcing my religious belief and thus in forming my identity.
Bellah, et al. (1985) noted that there has been a shift in how society perceives employment (cited in Berg, Grant & Johnson, 2010). According to their argument, religious is no longer important in shaping one’s perception of paid labor. The shift from religion to secularism has brought with it the perception that an individual’s work can never be separated from his or her life. Within the realm of secularism argument, work is still seen as a calling; however, it is no longer seen as a means of earning God’s favor but as a means of contributing to the good of the larger society. Bellah, et al. (1985, p.66) argued that: “a calling links a person to a larger community, a whole in which the calling of each is a contribution to the good of all”. In other words, employment is seen as an activity that produces both meaning and value critical in linking together members of a particular community. Moreover, paid employment produces benefit in terms of financial profit or output that can be helpful in holding members of a particular community together. Thus, apart from helping individuals to identify with a particular community, paid employment shapes identity by transforming an individual from a mere beneficiary into a benefactor in the community. For instance, getting a paid job at my age will not only be important in shaping my future career as far as associating with the most experienced professionals in the industry is concerned, but also in promoting the wellbeing of the members of my family. Having a job at this age would be important in relieving my parents from paying my school fees and providing for my upkeep in college. In essence therefore, with paid employment I would be more responsible as a person.
Paid employment is associated with reward, which guarantees good life and comfort. This is one of the age old notions associated with employment in our society. Ehrenreich (2006), argues that middle-class Americans had long believed that employment through hard work would bring with it material comfort and security, a belief held by the Protestants. However, he further challenges this notion by positing that the current crop of educated middle class Americans no longer hold this view and expectation. Instead, paid employment is increasingly seen as leading to corrosion of character. For instance, with the increasing turbulence in the labor market and world economy, paid labor is not seen to provide the much needed material, comfort, and security. More often we hear, organizations downsizing due to hard times or hiring on contract basis. Much as employment is seen as contributing to the wellbeing of individuals and community at large, it also leads to corrosion of characters and fabrics that hold the society together. For instance, lack of community at workplace, erosion of trust, loyalty and commitment as well as individualism at work is seen as some of the societal changes contributing to corrosion of character. Therefore, with the increasing lack of job security and other societal changes, paid employment has brought with it a new dimension in the labor market where there is cutthroat competition. Individuals no longer hesitate to take risk so long as one earns an edge over his or her competitors. At a young age as my own, employment would be important in preparing me for the future challenges in my profession. In other words, employment would mould me in a manner that I would be able to identify with the colleagues in my profession and successfully compete for the opportunities in the labor market.
It is also worth noting that paid employment can contribute to building of one’s character through long service and commitment to a particular organization. One of the main characteristics of contemporary organizations is the high demand for total and passionate commitment from employees to their work. Hughes (1971), argued that work plays an important role in self identity since it is what is used to judge every man and also what he or she uses to judge himself or herself personally (cited in Fine, 1996). In other words, you are what you do to earn a living, that is to say, an individual is described by what he or she does. For instance, to be called a police officer, one has to be earning his or her living from securing the life and properties of others while a teacher will be earning his or her living from imparting knowledge to others. In addition, as a student in a gainful employment, I would earn another identity which may supersede my studentship. For instance, if I combined my studies with a paid job as a cashier in a local restaurant, I would certainly earn another identity as a cashier and my peers as well as family and friends would see me as a working class and thus being a student would come second in their description. Thus, through employment, society will find it easier to identify the role of each one in the society and at the same time, individuals will be able to understand and categorize themselves.
Although industrial labor is considered by some as monotonous and dull, it can be rewarding if it enables an individual to pursue more meaningful activities in life (De Botton, 2009). More often people are heard saying the following: ‘getting this job is a dream come true’ or ‘this has been the biggest moment in my entire life’; ‘this job is my life, it means everything to me’; and ‘I have worked so hard to achieve this, I feel complete’. Apart from the financial gain that a paid employment provides to an individual, work provides a great satisfaction to many and is a way of putting a permanent imprint on one’s particular field or profession. In other words, society has a way of identifying its best through the achievements we make in our careers and fields. For instance, apart from being among the world richest men, Bill Gates will be forever remembered for his great and pioneer works at Microsoft Inc. From his example, we can learn that paid employment is not only rewarding financially, but also affords an avenue to exceed the expectations of the public in terms of innovativeness and creativity.
Through innovativeness and creativity, one is able to develop an entrepreneurial identity. Du Gay (1996) argues that identity is no longer predictable since the disruption in the world economy has proved problematic to the earlier patriarchal hierarchies upon which the identity of contemporary worker was founded. As a result, individual life has become a project of enterprise whereby individuals are overcoming all manner of challenges and hurdles to engage not only in shaping their destiny but also in satisfying their basic needs and desires. While each individual has become an enterprising consumer full of desires, preferences and needs, that the market must satisfy (Du Gay, 1996), work provides a means through which individuals can be dependent on each other in satisfying these desires, needs and preferences. For instance, a businessman will depend on an engineer to put up his or her house while the engineer will have to get basic commodities from the retailer. In essence, through work, there is division of labor as far as individual role in the society is concerned and this is important in identifying the benefactors and the beneficiaries. As Du Gay (1996) notes, the disruption in the world economy has prompted individuals to constantly engage in activities that optimize the worth of one’s own existence; however, this has brought with it a new form of identity whereby individuals are forever striving to take “absolute responsibility for their own self-optimization” (Bell, 2011). Thus, by getting a paid employment now, I will be simply exercising my desire to optimize the worth of my existence by engaging in meaningful activity and being entrepreneurial.
It is important to note that getting a paid employment does not guarantee material comfort and security, let alone happiness. It has been disclosed in a number of studies that most people are not happy in their current jobs. However, it is worth noting that more and more people are joining the workforce. Regardless of one’s level of satisfaction with his or her job, this paper has strived to analyze how paid employment can influence individual identity drawing from my personal experience. From the discussion above, it is argued that individual identity based on societal and one’s own judgment, differs across job cadres. However, it is the contention of this paper that despite the nature of one’s work, identity is constructed through language, dress code, group membership, and even the car we drive. In addition, paid labor provides a means of achieving great deeds among peers and within a particular profession or field. It is through such achievements that individuals can be identified with a particular innovation not only during their active years but even after they are long dead. In sum, it is clear that work helps in shaping one’s identity just by being associated by a particular group and this is important in how we interact and are viewed by the public as well as how we interact with our colleagues as we seek to realize self-optimization.