Work / Life

If You Are Your Job Title, Who Are You When You Don’t Have One?

The growth of the gig-economy has challenged the traditional job title. Now it’s starting to challenge our identities.

Illustration: Kim Ryu

I am 37 years old. I was supposed to be a national television news producer or a local news director by now. I was supposed to be making six figures and managing dozens of people, choosing the most topical, important news slices of the day for millions of people to see. That was my professional development plan.

I’m none of those things. Are you what you thought you would be 15 years ago? Most people aren’t. And for many, it wasn’t their choice to change. Life changed for them and they were forced to follow.

People extol the virtues of change, but the truth is that change is scary. Change terrifies people, and for good reason, according to Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, a psychotherapist in Florida. She says fear of the unknown is wired into humans at a biological level.

 “We have healthy fears about what things are going to look like, and that feeling is a normal feeling,” said Sarkis, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. “We don’t like feeling unpleasant things; we back away from them, which means sometimes we don’t pursue something because the fear becomes paralyzing.”

In terms of work, we build our lives on goals and dreams and those have been traditionally built on the stability of the industries in which we work. Our dreams are built on and around our careers, what we do, and through that, what we deem we are worth. Even industries that are not considered traditionally stable are suspect: a firefighter, for instance, could tie her identity to her job of saving people. Fighting fires becomes integrated into her definition of herself–job and personality intertwined. If she gets injured and can no longer physically fight fires, that identity is shaken. Who does she become without the specific manifestation of her work proving her worth to herself and others?

“We all have a need for stability, and if we are used to working for one company, and the modality of work has changed to working for multiple people or businesses at once, it can make us feel like there is less financial stability,” Sarkis said. “That’s when we look at whether we can accept more risk in our careers, or if we have to shift our focus. The anxiety tells us that it’s time to examine this and take control of the change. What can we do to make it so that this change is something that works in our best interest? And what are the options available?”

Careers used to be a valid and stable marker of our success and thus our self-worth, but in the 21st century, workers have found traditional career paths waning, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Our career development plans simply do not work the way they did for our parents’ generation. At the same time, the organization’s research shows that jobs within those career paths are being broken down to their elemental pieces and outsourced as gigs to a part-time workforce.

“When we look at millennials, they are changing jobs much more often than the previous generations,” Sarkis said. “There is less incentive to stay at a company for a long period of time because people don’t have pensions anymore or they don’t hire full time anymore. The workforce is changing. The one constant is change.”

One huge societal narrative in America is that having an impressive job title gives you more value as a human. We often adopt this belief without considering our own thinking first.

Fifteen years from now, you probably won’t be who you think you are today. That could be because life happens so fast that people can live it for years without truly examining who they are and what they like. Dr. Kathleen Smith, therapist and author of Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down, says we, as a society, can define ourselves not by our innate inherent being, but by what we do. By our jobs.

“When we haven’t thought about how we want to evaluate ourselves, we tend to adopt what society values,” she said. “One huge societal narrative in America is that having an impressive job title gives you more value as a human. We often adopt this belief without considering our own thinking first.”

Smith has written quite a bit in her book about the dangers of defining yourself by your job. But if you aren’t your job, who are you?

Most people have no idea. And that leads to an unhealthy relationship between unemployment and depression, anxiety and life satisfaction, according to a study in the journal of Aging and Mental Health. Very few people chart life goals and actually realize them. The least liked form of change is a transition forced upon us, usually driven by loss—either financial or personal. These are the changes we want to resist, to fight against. We struggle to maintain the identity we tied to the circumstances in our lives that we thought we had made ourselves. A teacher spends her days molding young minds, creating the future through her words and lessons. She takes care of others. When she gets laid off, her daily life no longer provides her with tasks that affirm this vision of herself. Without them, is she still who she thought she was? Often, when we lose those specific circumstances, we feel lost and frustrated. But crisis can define us even more than stability.

“I think people forget that humans are flexible and resilient creatures by nature. We’re not reptiles that simply fight or run away from challenges,” Smith said. “Our brains are programmed to set goals and solve problems. We just have to remember to take the time to access that part of the brain when our lizard brains want to take over.”

If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be a successful freelance writer and a professor of journalism, I would have laughed in your face. When I was in my 20s, I was a television producer. I was good at it. I had a job in Boston, and I worked weekends in New York City. I had a solid and detailed life-plan, and I was going to achieve it. 

Then 2008 happened. 

I had twins a month after my husband lost his job, and we struggled. It took him two years to find another job in the barren wasteland that was journalism in the aftermath of the crash. So, when he did find one, I gave up mine, and we moved to Florida, where I immediately applied to be a news producer, and got the job. But they could only pay me $9 an hour and with baby twin girls, I couldn’t afford to work. 

People who have an important job title, or who’ve lost an important job title, can often find that transitioning is very difficult”, Smith said. “It’s amazing to note how much of our self-confidence or capabilities we borrow from the approval of others or the security of a job title.

I became a stay at home mom, something I never thought I would be. In the midst of suddenly being the main life-force of two tiny beings, I also had to contend with no longer being on my path, which meant no longer being me.

“People who have an important job title, or who’ve lost an important job title, can often find that transitioning is very difficult,” Smith said. “It’s amazing to note how much of our self-confidence or capabilities we borrow from the approval of others or the security of a job title.”

So many times, our lives change, and we’re stuck in this new landscape and have no idea what to do. We tie our identities to our current situations over and over again, so that when life changes, we can sometimes lose our own selves. As a television news producer, I lived and breathed news. I invested my life in the cold open, the dynamic live shot, and, more important to me, shedding light on problems and corruptions in our society. I pushed to make the world a better place through coverage. When I lost that, I lost me. My life changed while I stood firm in my previous beliefs about myself. People look at change as something static. Something they can achieve through rigidity. It’s really the opposite. It’s accepting life, not rejecting it for your idea of what your life should be.

“I think it’s important to define yourself with variables that are within your control,” Smith said. “You might not always have an impressive job title, an adoring boss, or the approval of your peers, but you can have values and principles that you use to guide you in your work and in the rest of your life.”

Change happens and we have to change, too. Whether you had to quit a job, got laid off or you were fired, the important thing is to still your mind and to let yourself change with the change.

“Think about what your definition of success is,” Sarkis said. “What is your ideal work situation in five or 10 years? How do you get to there from here? How would things be if they were the way you wanted them to be? Are the goals you have now fulfilling your needs, are they getting you to where you need to be? Find the source of your fear; that’s always the first step.”

Smith gives solid advice as to how to use a change to better ourselves and become our most authentic success story–instead of spiraling in a vortex of self-doubt and sabotage because our lives seem suddenly off-track from what we’ve planned.

When you first experience a loss that causes an unwanted transition, take time. Figure out what you have control over and avoid fixating on the things you don’t. Keep close track of your thought processes. At times like these, Smith said the mind can cut corners, moving too fast, glazing over any positives. Instead, “nudge your thinking towards resilience.” When we suffer a life-change like a job loss, there are so many things out of our control that it is easy to fixate on things we have no power over. We must instead focus on the areas of our lives we still dominate. Tangentially to this, we must remember to be kind to ourselves. Many times people want to beat themselves up over circumstances, as if they are solely to blame. Instead, practice radical self-care while recovering from unwanted change. Through this care and this active self-listening, we can find our true priorities, and pivot to a life we consciously choose.

As we do that, we can make sure we form an identity separate from our jobs or careers. We are who we are, not what we do. We have to concentrate on what makes us ourselves in the absence of our ties to societal goals.

As we do that, we can make sure we form an identity separate from our jobs or careers. We are who we are, not what we do. We have to concentrate on what makes us ourselves in the absence of our ties to societal goals. We don’t have to become all new. We don’t have to completely change who we are and what we are doing, but we have to let go of our plans and continually iterate who we are going to be.

In 2010, I was unable to work outside the home. I turned to blogging. Through that, I gained an audience. Through that, I started writing for publications, which gave me the confidence to apply to grad school. As soon as I graduated, I used my professional publication record to get myself a job at the university, which is now my main source of income. I made a career pivot.

My life changed, and I didn’t want it to. I had dreams, plans, and ideas about who I was. I went through debilitating anxiety doing all this because I thought my whole life had been wasted. I was wrong. I simply thought I had a life I didn’t actually have.

Now, you can’t just go through life with no plans whatsoever. Pivoting and changing with change is in itself an iteration of ABZ planning. In this model, Plan A is the career you have right now. The work you are currently doing. Plan B is your side ambitions. Things you are passionate about and enjoy. When, inevitably, Plan A falters or falls through, Plan B is where you put your efforts first. Plan Z is your fallback plan, a temporary lifeboat while you get yourself back on track. For some, this could be a full-time job in another profession, one you didn’t study or train for. For others, it means moving in with friends or relatives, cashing a 401K, finding part-time work, or a myriad of other permutations. 

When you use Plan Z, don’t get stuck there. Often the comfort of a consistent paycheck keeps us where we land. That combined with the lack of time and the mental exhaustion that comes with doing work you may not find fulfilling can eat into your desire to get back on your track. It can sap your hope if you let it, so don’t let it. Find your way back. This is especially true for those working in the gig economy. Only when you relax your rigid self-image can you allow the change in your life to work for you. Alternately, you may find that your Plan Z is a place you like being. Sometimes, Plan Zs turn into Plan As by virtue of our unknown enjoyment of them, and we need to be open to that change as well. The more open we are about our lives, the more fluid we allow ourselves to be throughout our journeys, the better prepared we will be for whatever may happen, and the easier it will be to succeed.

Remember, you didn’t fail. You are not a failure. Change isn’t always something we seek out. Change isn’t always something we can manage. But change is something from which we can grow. Change, whether it looks good or bad in the short term, helps form us into who we are meant to be.


This article is part of our series on change: why do we care so much about it, what do we get wrong about it, and is it really as great as we make it sound?

In our series, we’ve chronicled personal change, change in the workplace, and a handful of experiments on changing behaviours. In so doing, we hope to elucidate why we care so much about change.

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