Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

The Next Step

Should I Call Myself Unemployed?

The problem with labels

Posted Aug 01, 2016

A few weeks ago, as I traveled by plane to my parents’ home, I had a thought-provoking experience.  As I tried to mask my fear of the plane’s ongoing turbulence, the person sitting next to me (“Sharon”) introduced herself, and as we talked I began to relax.  But then the topic took a serious turn: Sharon had a relative (“Tanya”) who had a serious mental illness, and Tanya had fully embraced that illness as her identity.  (And yes, I promise I will relate this back to employment…)

Sharon told me that Tanya identified first and foremost as mentally ill and because of this she believed she could not work or do other everyday tasks such as keeping a regular schedule or socializing.  Why?  Because (in her eyes) seriously mentally ill people “couldn’t do that.”  The “ill” identity had become the entirety of who she was.  Sharon feared that Tanya would never again be able to function normally.

"Hello My Name Is (15283079263)"/Travis Wise/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0
Labels can define who we are - for better or worse.
Source: "Hello My Name Is (15283079263)"/Travis Wise/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Our conversation got me thinking about how powerful labels can be.  Labels, even the ones society views negatively (such as “mentally ill,” “unemployed,” etc.), can easily become part of your identity.  Sometimes labels can help you, but they can also cause problems.  Here are some ways that labels may affect you when you lose your job:   

Labels Can Help…

  1. Adopting a label as part of your identity can help you deal with the reality at hand and keep you from falling into denial. For example, if you lose your job and admit “Okay, that job isn’t coming back.  I’m no longer a Citibank/Google/Walmart employee.  I’m unemployed,” you may be more motivated to take action to find another job quickly.   
  2. Adopting a label can help you get the support (and/or services) you need.  For  example, if you go ahead and identify as “unemployed,” you may be more comfortable talking to friends about being out of work. They are then more able to offer you emotional support as well as job leads. You may also be more willing to join a job seekers’ support group, work with a recruiter to help you find a job, or file for unemployment benefits.

Labels Can Harm….

  1. You may identify so strongly with a label that it forecloses many other identities.  Sociologists call this kind of label a “master status”; it basically “takes over” how others see you and potentially how you define yourself.  For example, if you identify too strongly with the “unemployed” or “unemployable” identity, you may truly believe that you can never again be a plumber, accountant, professor, or whatever former occupation you identified with.
  2. Identity foreclosure may be especially likely if you believe your other identities contradict the label.  In my own research, many people over age 50 believed their former occupation was now really for “younger people,” and that their age meant they could no longer be a banker, travel executive, etc. because it is now a “young person’s game.”  (Unfortunately, the very real age discrimination that many companies engage in exacerbates this feeling.)
  3. Adopting a label that is viewed negatively by society may lower your self-esteem.  We often take on mainstream society’s views about a label, even if we personally disagree with those views.  Society’s stereotypes about unemployed people, as seen in jokes, mass media, and cultural beliefs about people who are out of work, can shape your identity and beliefs about yourself.

The U.S., in particular, subscribes to the idea that anyone at any time can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and get a job, even when the economy is struggling. This can lead people to assume that unemployed people must be lazy or poor quality employees.  You may end up internalizing this belief if you lose your job. If you identify as “unemployed” and you fear others might see you as lazy, you may think poorly of yourself, even if you know you are a hard worker and that the economy makes getting work very difficult.

So those are some of the pros and cons.  If you find yourself out of work, be careful of those labels.  They can sneak up on you, and can affect how you see your identity.  This, in turn, can affect your mental health and your job search.  Try not to put all your identity eggs in one basket.  Remind yourself of all the other wonderful things that make you who you are, and spend time doing the things associated with those non-work identities.  Once again, I wish you good fortune on your journey.   Look for more information on dealing with labels soon.   

P.S.  A special thanks to Thomas Scheff, PhD, and Jenna Howard, PhD, on whose work many of these ideas and some of my own work was based.