But This Job Isn’t Me!

Underemployment and identity.

Posted Sep 23, 2017

Research shows that underemployment – working for fewer hours, less pay, or beneath one’s educational/skill level – may be as harmful to mental health than being completely without paid work. [1]  Why might that be?

Certainly a decrease in income can be stressful.  But being completely unemployed would probably produce even more financial stress, meaning it should be even more stressful.  So that doesn’t explain it.

Maybe working fewer hours than you once did leaves you feeling bored or less productive than you once were.  But again, full unemployment should then have a stronger effect.  Strike two for that explanation.

But looking at it from an identity-based perspective might provide some clues.  Sometimes it might be easier to feel like you’ve kept your former job-related identity if you don’t yet have a new, different kind of job. 

In other words, without a new job to “take over” your occupational identity, it may be a little easier to tell yourself that you’ll eventually return to your old position, and so you remain the same person you always were.

And as long as you have enough savings to get you through, you might even be able to volunteer in the field in which you used to work, which could sustain your old work-related identity while you look for paid work in your former field.  For example, one of the people I interviewed for my book (53-year-old Skip) volunteered doing accounting at his church after losing his position as a bank vice president, and this helped him feel like who he was had not changed.

Another way underemployment can play out is if your new  “underemployed” job clashes with another of your identities, such as one based on your education level.  For instance, let’s say you graduated from college and were once a newspaper reporter, but now work as a waitress at a low-budget chain diner, like 30-year-old Amber:

Tom Driggers/Silver Skillet #2, Atlanta, Georgia/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made
When Amber went from a newspaper reporter to a waitress, her identity was threatened.
Source: Tom Driggers/Silver Skillet #2, Atlanta, Georgia/flickr/CC BY 2.0/no changes made

I think “Oh God, please don’t let me end up waitressing full time again.”  When I graduated college and I had all these lofty aspirations, I was like “Yay!  I’m gonna get a great job with my degree and I’m gonna be doing really cool stuff.  I’ll be able to be proud of what I do for a living.”  Working at the restaurant, it’s a bit different atmosphere.  There are a lot of high school dropouts there…I went to college so I could escape from that…I think the worst part about it is coming home and peeling off my uniform and seeing my degree.  That is really crushing when you have to do that.

When Amber contrasted her “college-educated self” with her current “waitress” self, an identity mismatch occured.  This is about more than just money issues or boredom; it’s about who she is – her identity.

Are there other ways that being underemployed challenges your identity?  Please help me create a full list.  The more we know about the variety of these challenges, the better job we can do to help find good fits for people searching for new jobs.  And good fits are more likely to lead to happy employees and employers. 


[1] Dooley, David. 2003. “Unemployment, Underemployment, and Mental Health: Conceptualizing Employment Status as a Continuum.” American Journal of Community Psychology 32:9-20.