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Jonathan Saipe

Do Our Jobs Define Us, Or Do We Define Our Jobs?

15 October 2021, Jonathan Saipe

career identity

When you strike up a conversation with a stranger, how long does it take you to ask them what their line of work is? Does their job define them, or does your job define you?

In the past, our surnames often defined our jobs. So if you were called Smith in many English-speaking countries, you were probably a blacksmith, locksmith, or silversmith etc.

In Germany, Schneider probably indicated you were a tailor. In Slovakia, the surname Varga refers to cobbler. And so on.

And because jobs were often generational, the pairing of surnames and jobs persisted over time, as a child would often inherit a parent’s business or line of work, facilitated through social learning.

But things started changing over the 20th Century. Increased access to education and women’s rights led to the emergence of more variation and income tiers. (I appreciate the latter is still often debated and in many cases requires addressing!).

Developing your career identity

Jobs, however, are still a marker of identity, but in a more nuanced way. And of course, there will be socio-economic and cultural trends too.

This is especially true of the “educated elite” where your job becomes how you identify yourself, and how others identify you.

Having a career identity is of course important, as it can distinguish you from others in your workplace, and let’s not forget, it gives you an exciting purpose to show up every morning.

A career identity is developed by a person’s motivation, interests and competencies in relation to acceptable career roles, often through a social learning process.


Those who let their jobs consume their identities may be doing so at their own expense, where their work-life balance has tilted disproportionally towards their careers.

This phenomenon is known as enmeshment. Enmeshment prevents the development of a stable, independent sense of self because the career is the driving force behind one’s identity, when in fact it should be the other way round.

Enmeshment is sometimes the by-product of work culture, where high-pressure jobs and industries often reward working longer hours with bonuses, promotions and accolade.

Whilst “employee of the month” is a great goal to aim for, it shouldn’t blur the boundaries between job and identity.

Of course, the concept of enmeshment has been made more complex since COVID, as many of us were, and still are, working remotely from home. This has made work-life balance much harder to navigate, especially when there are external forces at play, such as young children to home school.

What are the flags that identify enmeshment?

Looking for signs of enmeshment is a very useful exercise.

If you were to introduce yourself, would you mention your job in the first few sentences? Is your mind often consumed with work-related thoughts? Are you too focussed on work outside of standard working hours? What other interests do you have that aren’t work-related? And perhaps most importantly, if you weren’t able to carry out your job, would you feel that the rug had pulled under you, in terms of your identity?

Be objective about the answers to the above questions. Whilst changes are not always easy to make, due to personal circumstances, slowly introducing more balance is key to success here.

The question I’ve always wondered is, if you are sitting in a meeting – virtual or in-person – have you ever wondered what career your colleagues would really prefer to be doing? Are we all sitting behind a false career identity?

COVID forced some of us to take stock of our careers, either through necessity or choice. Hand on heart, I would dearly love to be a composer, but being brutally honest, it won’t pay for my children’s education!