The Recession and Me(aning), Part 1: If You Are What You Do, Who Are You When You Lose Your Job?

What happens when we lose work we define ourselves by?

Posted Feb 24, 2009

You've been dragged to a party, and you don't know anyone there.  You've armed yourself with a drink in one hand and a little plate of precariously balanced baby tomatoes, a poorly thought-out dollop of hummous (you'd have to put your drink down to scoop it!), and some mysterious puff pastry that might be concealing anything from vegetarian venison to tartar sauce.  Now that you're equipped like the king's least favorite knight, you are ready to wade into the fray.  You can already predict how it will go.  "Hi, I'm so-and-so. What do you do?"

This ubiquitous ritual creates the impression that the most important thing about us is our job.  Perhaps we are what we do?  Historically, there is a kernel of truth in this thought.  Many of our most common surnames are derived from the many jobs that helped sustain growing communities.  In fact, the Merriam-Webster definition of surname lists two uses: "1 : an added name derived from occupation or other circumstance : nickname" and "2 : the name borne in common by members of a family."  The Bakers baked, the Coopers made barrels, the Smiths crafted all sorts of things and the Meisters were in charge of production.  The close association of these professions with certain familes was sustained by economic systems that historically offered few opportunities to explore and attain new jobs.  If you were born on a farm, you farmed.  If you were the child of a cheesemaker, you made cheese, and so on.  What you did served as an efficient marker of where you fit in your community, for better or worse.

In contemporary, modernized societies, it has become much more common for people to engage in career "self-authoring."  We might grow up idolizing sports stars or entertainers, or become fascinated by DNA or dark matter; we might want to work outdoors or start our own business.  There are a million ways in which people develop interests in particular careers or kinds of work.  The loose expectation is that we choose our work.  We are supposed to give it some thought, obtain the training or skills we need, and put ourselves in the hands of people or organizations that can help us find a foothold in our new career.  In today's world, the question "What do you do?" is supposed to tell us about who people are, what they might value, what their dreams are.  We have come to see work as one of the major ways we express ourselves in the world.

As work has been given more of a role in representing who we are to the world, new forms of work-related problems began to appear.  Some of these probably would  have been seen as completely bizarre in the past.  What do you think Socrates would have thought about workaholism?  Oh sure, there were obsessed polymaths like DaVinci showing everybody up by staying at the office until the wee hours, but literally throwing our selves into our work seems to be a resoundingly modern problem.  In contrast to people who have found a way to engage positively in their work - even if it means long hours - workaholics who give everything to their work tend to feel that their lives are meaningless.  That's sad enough, but what happens when such people lose their jobs.  What happens when the sacrifices you've made in your social, romantic, personal, and spiritual lives are repaid in worthless company stock or a pink slip?  Who are you?

Generally, I am a big proponent of developing an approach to work that allows it to contribute something meaningful to your life, and serves some greater good as well.  As I will discuss in later columns, having this kind of meaningful work seems to be an important facet of living a full, rich life.

Today, however, with a grave recession deepening and projections of unemployment rates raching 10-12%, many of us are simply worried about having a job.  Period.  For many of us, finding meaningful work would seem like a luxury, kind of like having hot, lemon-scented towels to wash up with in the bathroom.  It's nice, but hardly seems central to the task.

Losing your job is tough on many levels.  Our national discourse typically focuses on the economic burdens posed by unemployment.  We offer unemployment benefits in the form of cash, and sometimes in the form of oportunities to receive training for other careers.  It's important to ask whether we're missing something crucial about unemployment in these conversations.  Although many people would advise not getting too upset about it, there is evidence that unemployment should be treated as a psychological crisis.  Typically, people are fairly steady in their levels of happiness and satisfaction with life.  There may be momentary bumps, but we return to our typical levels of life satisfaction sooner or later.  Or so the thinking goes.  In a fascinating study by Richard Lucas and colleagues (see reference at the end of this column), people who had experienced unemployment seemed to settle into new - and lower - "typical" levels of life satisfaction.  If I was very satisfied before, then lost my job, I might feel kind of unsatisfied with my life.  After getting a new job, I might feel better, but by that time, I might settle into being just kind of satisfied with my life.  There are two important messages here.  First, this research is about what happens on average in a group of people.  As the miracle weight-loss and get-rich-using-the-internet advertisements advise, 'individual results may vary.'  We'd expect that many people would go through unemployment unscathed.  Second, unemployment is a real and serious potential threat to people's psychological welfare.

There is a substantial literature on coping with adversity that yields some suggestions for successfully managing the threat or reality of unemployment.  Researchers have found, time and time again, that people who have faced adversity feel that they have grown, changed, or even benefitted in important ways through their experience.  That's not to say they'd sign up for another ride!  Rather, it means that they've figured out how to endure the injuries of their experiences and also take something new and hard-earned from their survival of it.  I discuss the role of meaning-making in this kind of coping in The Recession and Me(aning), Part 2.  You can follow this link to read on (


© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Lucas, R.Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2004). Unemployment alters the set-point for life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 15, 8-13.