Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

The Next Step

Your Identity After Losing a Job

Identity threats can be as distressing as money problems.

Posted Jun 30, 2016

Years ago, someone I care deeply about lost her job.   She had worked toward that job her whole life.  She was passionate about it and used it to define herself.  All her time, friends, and activities had been connected to that job. 

Now the job was gone, but as time moved forward, she struggled to do the same.  One spring day, months after she lost her job, we sat outside together and she began to cry and told me “I don’t know who I am anymore.”  She couldn’t go back, but it seemed like she couldn’t go forward either.  At the time, her identity was simply tied too strongly to her old job.

Source: "Identity"/premier101/flickr/CC BY 4.0

In the United States, we often equate our jobs with our selves.  One of the first questions we ask when meeting someone new is “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?”  Our society is largely driven by money, profit, and earning power, and this makes our professions a major part of how we identify.   So if you lose your job, you can easily lose your identity, too.

But isn't it all about money?  Aren’t money worries the biggest problem people face after losing a job?  Why worry about your identity when you can’t pay your bills?  Although it’s true that money can often be the main problem during unemployment, you can still simultaneously feel like your identity has been threatened by your job loss.  For some people, identity issues are even more upsetting than their problems with money.

In my own research, which focuses on middle-class people who lost their jobs, over two-thirds of the people I spoke to told me that they experienced identity-related problems and suffering after they lost their jobs; of those who did, almost half of them said that was the hardest part of job loss.  They told me that their problems with identity made them feel depressed, anxious, and angry.  

Is it possible that identity problems are just for the wealthy?  Were my research participants simply too well off for money to matter, making identity their main concern?  Granted, many of the people in my study were highly educated and had made good money before becoming unemployed.  Money may have been less of a concern for them because they could pay their bills. 

But not all of them could.  Despite high earnings in the past, they still had many mortgage payments, credit card payments, and other financial obligations that made their financial life stressful.  Some of them had lost their homes to foreclosure; others were about to be foreclosed upon or were unable to keep up with their mortgage payments.  They had every reason to worry about money. 

One woman I’ll call “Marsha,” a middle-aged divorced mother of two, had been out of work for six months despite a vigorous job search.  Her car was barely running anymore.  She had lots of credit card debt and had declared bankruptcy.  She had borrowed money from friends and withdrawn a large chunk of money from her (very small) retirement account just to pay household bills.  She was close to being unable to pay her mortgage.  Although money was indeed her biggest concern, she told me another major reason she felt depressed was because she didn’t feel like the same person she was in the past

Bottom line?  When you lose your job, identity can matter a great deal for your mental health, regardless of your financial situation.  So trying to find your way forward involves considering the effect that job loss may have had on your identity.  For example, do you no longer feel like the same person anymore?  Do you feel like you’re no longer a “good breadwinner”?  Do you feel like you are not “really” a good lawyer, administrative assistant, welder, or (fill in the blank with your own job) anymore, and does this make it hard to apply for another job in the same field?   Do you feel like you are no longer an adult because you’ve had to move back in with your parents to make ends meet?

If you lose your job, it is important to recognize threats to your identity, take them seriously, and deal with them directly to successfully move ahead.  Fortunately, some programs that aim to assist job seekers recognize this and have incorporated these ideas into their support plans.  Stay tuned: I’ll be writing about the strategies they use, as well as coping strategies that emerged from my own research.  I’ll also be presenting some ideas about what other, larger-scale factors — beyond what we as individuals can do — must be in place for a successful path forward.