Who Am I?

Exploring your identity.

I once was lost, but now am found.

I’m 70 and still wondering who I want to be when I grow up: What’s up with that?

Your situation is not unusual, especially as people live longer than ever before, and continue to work longer than ever before.

The identity statuses of Diffusion, Foreclosure, Moratorium and Achievement, in this order, range from least to most mature. So we might be tempted to think that anyone over age 18 is in an Identity Achievement. But that is often not the case.

Consider the following:

50 year-old Jack has worked for 27 years as an insurance claims adjuster after deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps. Jack enjoyed art while at university but knew it was not a practical career option, so he never really considered pursuing it. He just went with the first job he landed after college. He likes his co-workers, but finds that his responsibilities have become more and more tedious. He keeps fantasizing about quitting, but is not sure what to do instead. Jack is also willing to go back to school. Although he has read that careers in engineering are in demand, he is not interested. He knows first-hand the toil of working at a job that does not challenge him.  

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Jack takes some college courses, but nothing especially lights his fire. He looks into starting a franchise, but is not sure that is for him either. Then one night, after having friends over for a dinner party and basking in their accolades over the meal, it occurs to Jack that he should go to culinary school. He does so, and shortly after graduation, obtains a position as a chef in a high-end restaurant. He found his calling.

65 year-old Jill has worked for almost 40 years as a radiologist. She attended medical school because her parents wanted her to do so, given she was the first member of her family to graduate from college. Jill was never crazy about the idea of becoming a physician, especially after completing only a minor in Biology. Her major was Spanish. But after considering all the possible medical specialties, Jill realized that detecting and halting the progression of health problems was a good fit for her interests, talents, and values.

Jill’s only problem at this point in her life is that after years of paying off her student loans, on top of general living expenses, she has not saved enough money for retirement – much less early retirement. Huh? Well, Jill recently found out that her hospital is outsourcing the interpretation of diagnostic films, in order to save money (ironically on health insurance, given the hospital will not have to pay the health costs of foreign workers whose governments provide health insurance).

Jill spins her wheels for months, trying to figure out what to do, and finally realizes that her skills are very much needed in other parts of the world. Jill also longs to escape the cold. A few months later she is working at a clinic in Mexico, very satisfied, and happy to help those in need.

Although Jack probably came to his first career in an Identity Foreclosure and Jill in an Identity Achievement, both experienced either internal (i.e., dissatisfaction) or external (i.e., the prospect of being laid off) events that lead to their moving into an Identity Moratorium. And both had the emotional resiliency and motivation to eventually move into an Identity Achievement. As a result, both are very satisfied with their lives.

Notice that both Jack and Jill were temporarily lost, but not because they were in the initial process of identity development. Both are in middle adulthood, a stage of the lifespan during which many individuals increasingly confront identity issues, often because of the aforementioned external and/or internal reasons.

Returning to our question of being 50, 65, or 70 - and not knowing who we want to be when we grow up - all of us must begin to accept that our identities may change with age, and that we must be prepared to actively determine our path in life at any stage.

Although this may be troubling, remember that in some cultures, people are not even given the opportunity to choose. And even when we do have the opportunity to be self-directed, we may not always receive much guidance or support in the process-- reminding us that freedom can be burdensome if we are not prepared to handle it (Côté, 2006; Fromm, 1941).

So preparation, and exploration, are among the key characteristics on the route to Identity Achieved. In our next post, I’ll review the research on what other characteristics help, or hinder, individuals from moving into an Identity Achievement, the most mature of the identity statuses.


References (& Recommended Reading) 

Côté, J. E. (2006). Emerging adulthood as an institutionalized moratorium: Risks and

benefits to identity formation. In J. J. Arnett & J. L. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century (pp. 85-116). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Fromm, E. (1941). The Fear of Freedom, Routledge, London.


Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University.


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