How Your Job Shapes Your Identity

4 minute read

Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.


Well, that was easy for Confucius to say. And what kind of jobs were there to choose from in China in the 5th and 6th Century BC, anyway? There probably wasn’t a huge selection of career opportunities on offer for your average peasant over 2,000 years ago.

For most people, being in a job you love is the dream. It’s an attainable dream—but only a lucky few will be in a job they love for all of their working lives.

For the rest of us, we’re likely to have many jobs; some good, some not so good. There will be times when we’ll be happy to identify with what we do for a living, and with our employer also—and other times when it’s just a means to an end.

After all, work is what pays the bills and that’s critical to our sense of self too. Apart from the financial impact of being out of work, it can devastate our sense of identity; our role within our family, community, friendship group.

How Your Job Shapes Your Identity

So, what do we mean by identity?

Our identity is shaped by many things including our nationality, ethnic group, age, appearance, upbringing, education, cultural interests, talents, hobbies, language and religion. They all come together to make us who we are in the eyes of others.

And the things that are most significant to our identity will change over time. We acquire new personality traits, new interests, new defining attributes—and these all shape what our identity becomes when we enter different points in our lives. Like becoming a parent, or someone who’s been bereaved or a person who now lives in a different country and is identified as an immigrant, or ‘foreign’. Our identity is a multi-faceted thing. It’s fluid.



What we do for a living is a big part of it

If you work full-time, then in a week you’ll spend more time at work than with your partner or children.

And work-related problems can affect our physical, emotional and mental health. Work stress can bleed into all areas of our lives. It can affect our closest relationships and yet, at the end of the day, most of us will barely remember any of the details that seemed so important at the time.

How Your Job Shapes Your Identity

It’s all about how you answer the question, ‘so, what do you do?’

If you’re not happy with your job, you probably dread this question. But when work’s good, your answer is who you’re proud to ‘be’. And it’ll instantly create all sorts of images in the mind of the person asking.

Some will answer in a way that makes their status clear, i.e. ‘I’m Vice President of…’, ‘I’m Executive Creative Director of…’, while others, who may have senior roles, can be more modest, ‘I’m in Creative’.

Then, of course, some jobs conjure up strong connotations immediately. ‘I’m an estate agent’, can be the kiss of death to a conversation. While stating that you’re a ‘nurse’ or that you ‘work with the homeless’ can lead to a snap judgement that you’re nice, worthy. 

Saying you work for a charity is a bit like that too. It can lead others to think you’ll be ‘nice’, motivated by a desire to ‘do good/make a difference’ and that money’s not your biggest driver in life (or possibly that you don’t need to earn a lot).

Don't miss another post, sign up to our weekly newsletter

Thank you for subscribing, you're on the list for the next edition!

But does working for a charity make you inherently ‘nice’?

A high proportion of people working in charities are motivated by the cause; that’s definitely true. It’s also true that most people in the voluntary sector don’t put salary or status above all else in their career. And if you want your work to make a difference to the lives of others, then you’ll find like-minded people working in the voluntary sector.

However, that may be as far as you can afford to generalise. Charities compete for the best talent; it’s not about being ‘nice’ so much as it’s about being effective and the best person for the job.

If you go into the charity sector thinking your boss will be less demanding—then you’ll be disappointed. There are brilliant, inspirational bosses who’re also tough and set high standards. True, they’ve chosen to work for a charity and that can say something about the kind of person they are, but it doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be ‘easier’, or ‘nicer’.

Your specific role shapes your identity as well; whether you’re a fundraiser, work in IT or in a caring position. Getting better at your job means honing the skills or attributes that made you right for a role in the first place. For example, if you get a job in fundraising because you’re good with people and persuasive, the longer you do that job the more these attributes will shape your identity—in and outside of work.

How Your Job Shapes Your Identity

A logical vs a haphazard hierarchy

It’s also true that where your role sits within the charity can dictate whether you work in a logical, or a haphazard hierarchy—something that can shape who you are inside and outside of work.

For example, a legal affairs division may have a logical hierarchy; where everyone’s clear about what they need to do to move up. A PR or creative division is more likely to have a haphazard hierarchy where promotion depends upon an alchemy of attributes including achievements, personality and who you know. Neither structure is necessarily better than the other. We may also prefer one to the other at different times in our lives. But a haphazard hierarchy carries an inherent insecurity which can breed anxiety; a feeling that work, and life, is a popularity contest you need to win.



But in the end, there’s very little you can do about how you’re seen by others. In that sense, your identity is out of your hands. It can, however, be worth thinking about how the role you’re in right now makes you feel about yourself.

Are you happy to answer the question, ‘so what do you do?’ Or you do you dread it? Does your job build on your strengths? Or does it bring out the worst in you? If it’s the latter, then you owe it to yourself to try and either make a career change—or find ways to cope with your working day better, so that it’s not damaging to your own sense of who you are outside of work.

Think you might need to invest in a new career? Find out what charities are hiring today.

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.

You might also like...