Repairing Job Identity Loss While Unemployed
By Mark Swartz
Losing a valued job – without having another one lined up – creates instability. It may also cause something unexpected: a sudden identity crisis. It hits home when someone new asks, “So, what do you do?” Or when an acquaintance inquires, “How’s work going?”
For people who associate themselves closely with their work, lack of it strips them of their usual self-image. That is no small matter. Job identity loss can have a profound effect on how a person copes with their transition.
How Work Identity Forms
The longer someone works, the likelier their identity is tied to being employed. People begin to see themselves as contributors. Their role evolves into being a productive member of society. To be a steady provider is something expected of most adults.
These expectations get internalized. Over time they become part of a person’s self-worth. To be valuable means to earn wages stably. Working for an organization is a symbol of being accepted and acceptable.
So people start using the vocabulary of their workplace. They may try to fit in more. Or emphasize instead their occupational niche (e.g. “I’m an accountant, you?”). Maybe they see themselves as part of an industry sector (“I’ve always been in automotive and probably will be forever”).
The Shock of Identity Loss
Getting downsized and becoming unemployed can be disorienting. Roles shift abruptly. The person is no longer working. Regardless if they are still getting paid severance, or are choosing not to collect E.I. benefits, perceptions change.
Among friends, family and future employers, the jobless person might be viewed less as a loyal employee or respected professional. At present they are “unemployed.”
For the person experiencing this identity adjustment, it can be deeply unsettling. They may suffer an embarrassing loss prestige. For now they might have to seek assistance – from networking contacts, career coaches and government resources.
Shame and disorientation undermine confidence. Add this to the financial stress and other concerns that mount as unemployment stretches out. These can detrimentally affect a job search.
Creating a Transitional Identity
A method of dealing with role ambiguity is to create one proactively. In this case it’s about being in transition. Unemployment is a temporary stage in any career cycle. Thus it makes sense to embrace an identity as transitioning from one job (or employer) to the next one.
How to make this real? People who are job seeking while unemployed have a set of transitional business cards produced. They adjust employment settings on social media. Current status is listed as in transition. And when people ask about work, they positively state they’re in transition, then briefly explain what sort of job and employer they are aiming for next.
Redefining the Self
The turbulence of unemployment loosens strict definitions of self. Out of that uncertainty revised definitions can emerge.
Some people develop a personal mission, vision and values statement. It examines their primary purposes in life. As well, individual aspirations and the ethics used in pursuing them are outlined.
On the work front, constructing a refined career plan aids with focus. That can be accomplished by answering in detail “Where you see yourself in five years?” The results are essential for goal setting and action scheduling.
How to Cope With Losing Your Job Identity
Job loss is disruptive, especially when there are no immediate prospects. A person’s sense of identity as a wage earner is interrupted. So is their role as member of a productive workplace.
Uncertainty and loss of control seep through the cracks. An effective method of restoring confidence is to embrace being in transition. It strengthens self-image to cope with the pressures of unemployment.
Regaining a sense of control can ward off job loss depression. As for job searching, it is much more effective with a renewed sense of self.