The need for nuanced professional identities
Banker. Mechanic. Lawyer. Journalist. Doctor.
So many people’s careers can be boiled down to a simple word. But so often those words are loaded terms that earn nods of approval or side-eyes of judgement.
However, this one-word professional identity hammers against self-worth when you’re a dreamer who is doing work to pay the bills.
Take, for example, my friend who is an aspiring playwright. Right now, she’s unemployed, but she’s pursuing full-time jobs with digital marketing agencies. At what point can she say she’s a writer? At what point can she credibly say she is a playwright? Is it when the play is written? When it is sold? When it premiers? Especially with the romanticization of the arts, it can feel self-indulgent to identify as a writer, singer, musician, or artist. And what should you say your profession is — the profession that owns your heart or the profession that gives you health insurance?
Beyond the aspiring creative, there is another archetype that bucks their one-word professional identity: the blue-collar man. I’ve seen this with the drivers I work with at the cooperative. He is not a driver, he’s a network engineer, a transportation planner, a community organizer. The list goes on. Call any driver in New York City a “driver” and they’ll be quick to correct you. Sure, I drive. But I am a professional. Don’t write me off as second-class. I contribute. I provide.
Anyone close to the gig economy understands the financial precariousness endemic to the industry, whether you’re a driver or dasher or designer. But what about the psychological precariousness of identity?
I was listening to the legendary Esther Perel’s podcast, “How’s Work?” where she was counseling a group of journalists, shaken by the pandemic. She asked, “How many hours a week do you have to do something to be it?” How many hours must we do something to identify as it if we want to assume that identity? And must we limit the number of hours we do something if we’d like to eschew that identity?
Just like with gender or sexual identities, simple boxes make life easy for the observer, but confine the truest self of the observed. When you’re straddling ambition, ego, and obligation, there is not always a simple word that captures your profession. Just as we’ve normalized a move away from the binary of male or female or the binary of gay or straight, let’s move away from the one-word identities of profession. There is a spectrum of how a single individual in a day, a week, a month, or a year spends his time and earns her income.
In allowing for more complex and nuanced professional identities, we can encourage people to pursue their dreams without the pressure of neat packaging and pursue an income without the fear of class confinement.