Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

The Next Step

Make Identity Great Again

Working-class people may identify with their jobs more than some think.

Posted Nov 23, 2016

With all the controversy surrounding the presidential election, I’ve found myself thinking about the role that identity – specifically job-related identity - may have played in the outcome.  Whether you are thrilled or devastated by the results, one group – working-class people (especially men) – has been getting a lot of media attention for supporting the president-elect in large numbers.  Are the election results connected to working-class job identity?  If so, how?

The first question is whether working-class people identify with their jobs.  There are two common opinions on this - the “Yes” and “No” camps. 

Most people, including some scholars, fall into the “No” camp.  They claim working-class people do not identify with their jobs; their jobs are not a big part of their identities.  They say that for working-class people, a job is just a job, just a way to earn a living, and that working-class people often dislike their job or see it as a “grind.”  Perhaps this is true, but does that necessarily mean they don’t identify with their jobs?

This brings us to the others – those in the “Yes” camp – who say that working-class people’s jobs are a part of their identities, but that unlike some middle-class people who identify with a specific job title, working-class people may identify with their work more broadly.  For example, someone might identify as “a union man,” or “one of the girls at the diner.”  They may also connect their work-related identities back to other aspects of who they are, such as their masculinity.   

Union Rally anniversary of MLK's death/joetta@sbcglobal.net/flickr/CC BY 2.0
A pro-union rally
Source: Union Rally anniversary of MLK's death/joetta@sbcglobal.net/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Masculinity is strongly tied to work, particularly for people in the working class.  Unfortunately, many of the working-class jobs traditionally held by men (such as manufacturing positions) are no longer available in the U.S. 

Over the past 40 years these jobs have disappeared because of outsourcing or technological advances.  This has left working-class men with fewer ways to make a living, and (perhaps just as importantly) without a work-related identity or even a masculine identity.  In other words, outsourcing has stripped away masculine identities for a significant proportion of the U.S. population.  And identity loss is one of the most distressing experiences one can have.

The group of working-class men who have been jobless or near-jobless made themselves heard in the recent election.  Trump’s promises to “make America great again” by reducing outsourcing and bringing manufacturing positions back to the U.S. struck a chord with this group, and they turned out in droves to elect him.  The question for them was: “How can I feel like a man again?”  (Or “How can I reestablish my male identity?”)  The answer for them was: “Elect someone who will make sure I get my masculine job/role back.  Then I can enact and perform that identity every day.  And that way I’ll feel like a man again.”  Whether Trump’s policies will bring these jobs back to the U.S. remains to be seen, but certainly most working-class men seemed to believe in what he said.  In other words, regaining a lost identity is so important that it contributed to the outcome of the presidential election.

So those are my thoughts, but now it’s your turn.  I’d love to hear from you, especially if you are a working-class person.  Is your work a part of your identity or not?  If it is, did that affect how you voted?  And what is your “next step” in regaining your identity?