A job title will seldom define who a person is. Yet, enter any cocktail party, have casual conversation with a new acquaintance, have a first date, or have someone explain “who they are” and most people will likely respond, in some regard, with their job title i.e., the task they do to earn money to pay bills. Many – maybe most – people feel like their reason or justification for being is largely defined by what they do for work.

“Who you are” can also be called ‘identity’. An identity is how a person defines themselves, how they experience self-esteem, and is the basis of how people determine how to act on a daily and long-term basis. It is a measuring stick to gauge personal worth for both oneself and others. It can set the tone for a person’s values and worldview. It can be a reflection point for every decision one makes.

And for way too many people, identity is simply toned from what one does for a living. What of it? For some people it may make sense.  For example, I have a friend who is successful scientist and is eager for that to be his identity. To a large degree, that’s him.

For many of us though, maybe about 4 out of 5 of us, or maybe 9 out of 10[1], what we do for work is to earn money and pay bills. In fact, our entire economic system is dependent on the uneasiness[2] (i.e., suckiness) of working. Ask the collections specialist for the plastic fittings company. Ask the driving instructor. Ask the dishwasher. Ask the COO of an HR payroll processing company. Ask the QC manager of a missing uniform redemption department at a uniform leasing company. Most jobs are unpleasant tasks. Most are tedious and uninteresting.

It seems that, for most of us, defining our identities would be better served by reflecting on what we think, what we enjoy, how we behave, the people we associate with, our societal worldview, or our belief system.   The state of our families or friends. The people who love us and the people we love. The things we spend our time on. And, yes, to some degree what we do from 9-5.

It’s my belief that many people devise miserable, joyless situations for themselves by assuming that their employment must also stand in for who they are. I think it makes some people feel worthless or underachieving. It makes some people delusional about making a hobby (say music or art) or a passion (say helping people) fulfill the clinical function of paying bills. It makes other people invest way too much of their precious mental energy convincing themselves that the job they have is indeed important and their identity. How many people at said cocktail party exclaim that they ‘love their work’ when it couldn’t be clearer that their job is somewhere between unlovable to miserable? The effects almost seem criminal to someone frictionally unemployed. It makes some perfectly over-worked and beautiful full-time mommies cringe when asked “what do you do?” It forces people to reflect away from the things that really matter.

This breakdown in defining personal identity extends beyond the individual; it is institutionalized by our schools and universities and our culture. Companies and workplaces are also culpable: they leverage this work/identity relationship to the full tilt to manipulate their workforces. But at the same time, many people look for an easy out when it comes to self-reflection. If their jobs make up their primary identity, they may tack on political party affiliation or religion to complete their profile. Broader, dumber, and even despicable identity bases can be found in nationality and race.

The danger comes in the gross, thoughtless adoption of these identity traps. It’s only when we carefully analyze, contemplate, measure, and test our thoughts in detail can we come to meaningful answers about our identity that can lead to happiness and satisfaction with our personal esteem, more focus on what we enjoy and for most, more efficacy at paying bills (the function of work)

The dangers, though, of work-identity alignment go beyond the individual. There is a great breakdown in political and economic thought with society as a whole in regards to jobs. I’ll paint with a broad brush for a moment (excuse me): most political worldviews including our current system in the US and Europe, believe in full or near employment and believe the task of creating or preserving jobs is of the highest order. They believe that people want jobs and that a high performing economy is one where everybody has jobs.

There’s some obvious truths to these points, but the fact is that people don’t really want jobs; they want money or goods that having a job typically rewards. And a high performing economy is not because everybody has a job of some sort, but rather everyone having a job is a typical outcome. The lowest low of Communist Russia or China can have full employment matched with full poverty and misery.

What happens with these instincts is terribly unproductive in economic terms. People and politicians frown on anything that might displace labor, work feverishly to create jobs at any expense, protect workforces from foreign threats and technology, and believe that everything will be better when everybody is working. The worst ideas result in ideas like “paying people to dig holes and then fill them”. The real manifestation we see daily results in paying people to be census workers, protecting expensive weapons projects for the sake of jobs, stimulus bills aimed at construction projects, ‘green’ investments for the sake of jobs, etc.

Real economic growth comes from production of things people want to consume and the creation of higher order or capital goods needed for producing them. The people who decide this are entrepreneurs and they have one mighty boss: the consumer who wishes to consume them i.e., the people, the society, the citizens.

Most of our  wealth, over time and in aggregate, comes from displacing labor. Technological innovation is at the center of this, and so is process optimization (doing things in a more efficient way), advanced training techniques, and even labor arbitrage. All of these practices are about eliminating work. The invention of the wheelbarrow puts someone who carried stuff in their arms out of work. The cart and horse puts ten people out of a job who used to carry things in wheelbarrows. The pick-up truck or the ocean liner or airplane replaces hundreds or thousands of people who used to carry stuff with their horses. The loss of work is good. It makes society richer. Can anybody say we’d better with all of those jobs carrying rocks and letting our machines rust?

Societies get poorer as they put valuable labor resources against projects that don’t produce further economic value. While the society spends energy on wasteful activities in the name of employment, they continue to consume the stuff they actually need until that supply dwindles and there is nothing to buy (or afford) with the money that was produced through employment.

One significant shortcoming of free market thought is that it doesn’t address the importance of work to individuals’ identity. They brush it off in economic terms, seeming cold and callous.

The brush off is twice insulting. The new jobless won’t have the means to feed their families, and perhaps just as bad, the lynchpin of their identities, i.e., “what they do/who they are” has been destroyed. The loom operator who is displaced by the fabric-making machine doesn’t cheerfully move on to better employment. He screams at the system for cheating him from his productivity and identity, he rails against his ex-employers, complains to his family, begs his union or congressman to dash out the new machinery. He’s not thinking about what he is to be next, just what he mistakenly thought he was.

This may also be the source of corruption. One source, maybe the major source, of corruption is when men must perpetuate what they do after it stops producing real economic value. Imagine the manager of the photocopying department of a large company faced with the growing adoption of email.   Seeing his job and identity being displaced, he may first discourage people from using the more efficient email in favor of making paper copies.  As this fails, he may petition his bosses to mandate that a certain amount of communication be on paper. Failing this, he may beg his union boss to make new rules to preserve his department.  This is essentially corruption: resorting to non-productive (often evil) ways of self preservation and growth.  He’s finally ripped out by a watchful CFO who finally gets to the root.  You can imagine this experience in a government job, funded by tax payers through coercion, happen all the same way.  In the government, though, the watchful CFO doesn’t exist and corruption is unchecked and never ending.

From an emotional perspective, wouldn’t it be better to preserve the jobs? What cruel person robs both a man’s dinner and soul?

The capitalists in this case doesn’t address the issue much more than describing cases of frictional unemployment; a perfectly healthy economic action that results in most of the people searching for work doing something else based on the prioritization of demand in the marketplace. Wages might fall for some. Workers may find themselves doing something wildly different e.g., “I used to manufacture car windows. Now I quality check medical devices”. The greater the shifts, the greater the individual frustration and resistance to the market effects of unemployment.

The working individual and the politicians who represent them don’t see this as a healthy economic event. In fact, even Hayek himself, with a fully articulated understanding of market mechanics, still might be irked to the point of violence and depression if given his pink slip.

The capitalists are right, though. There is no value in protecting jobs for the sake of protecting jobs. If they are to hem their philosophy at all, it may just be to at least have a sympathetic answer to the inquiry “what about the jobless that occur from this market change?” The answer should be more than a brush off or some mumblings about moving on, but will still largely be a pretty box (or articulate sympathy card) to put the bad-sounding news in.

Changing the identity monolith

The real change has to be in re-assessing the value of the job in terms of identity for both the individual and society. It means for 4 out of 5 of us (or 9 out of 10), we must unhinge our identities from our employment. A big part will be ripping our children out of schools and universities, where the job/identity connection is promoted for 16 years. When we do, we will not only be happier day to day, but we will have much more enjoyable cocktail party conversations about philosophy, hobbies, love, passion, art, and other more meaningful topics than working.  When faced with the prospect of finding new work – whether from a rational assessment of a better opportunity or forced into it through a pink slip – we can easily switch to a new position the way it will be most productive. Here is my new job, not my new “me”. I have a different way (hopefully better) of paying bills now.

At a societal level, this transformation will encourage political entities to abandon their errant obsession with creating employment or preserving existing jobs at any cost.   The curious result will be better functioning markets, and without irony or contradiction, will likely create a lot of satisfying, high paying jobs and societal wealth. People will use their jobs to be productive, not define their souls.


[1] I don’t have any survey data as such, this is my personal observation working with a lot of different people.

[2] Ludwig Von Mises uses the word ‘uneasiness’ to describe what people feel working. I think the term is too light.