Are you what you do?

How much of ourselves do we put into our job? Some define themselves by their career. For others, the daily role-play must be offset by an escape into something else. Dave Waller examines our shifting work expectations.

by
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I am a trifle, a brownie, a cheesecake. That probably reads like an excerpt from one of the Beatles' more off-the-wall numbers. In fact, it's an unusual self-appraisal from entrepreneur James Averdieck, one face of Orange's 'I am' ad campaign. Although he makes no spurious claims to be a walrus, Averdieck does say he's his mum's cake that gave him the taste for chocolate, and the Gu mousse on which he built his business.

Orange isn't the only brand using the 'I am...' strap-line: Mercedes has also taken to introducing itself rather cloyingly in the first person. Both are part of a trend that reaches far beyond advertisements. From social networking to the hit TV series Who do you think you are?, popular culture seems increasingly geared towards our desire to find and express exactly what makes us us.

The Orange ad is revealing. It implies that, these days, work forms a critical part of one's identity. People are seeking to define themselves as the sum of their parts: you don't do a job any more - you are what you do. You're even the thing you make.

Well, sit us on a cornflake and call us the egg men. Not long ago, a job was something you did to put bread on the table. Of course, work inevitably shaped the people who did it - take an intensive trade such as mining, for example. Yet there was no chance that miners would sit around eulogising the importance of metamorphic rock in shaping their identity. They just got on with digging.

Nowadays, however (at least, when the global financial situation isn't in meltdown), people in a cushy job with a decent salary, paid holiday, pension, healthcare and a well-stocked sandwich trolley will jack it all in, saying: 'It's not really me.' Notes the CIPD's Linda Holbeche: 'People under 35 have a degree of intolerance towards something that doesn't reflect who they are, and they're vocal about it. The expectation can be that they'll be fed, not do the feeding.'

So what has happened? Identity is clearly a huge issue these days. Look at the social networking revolution. Many people relate to themselves and others through online profiles, from Facebook to YouTube and Twitter, all revolving around making the self tangible and promoting it: 'This is a picture of me at lunch today, here's what I'm thinking, and this is how many friends I have.'

Against this backdrop, work inevitably plays a key role in shaping identity. At least there you're challenging yourself, developing and learning. Indeed, Orange's Gu ad is much more inspiring for featuring Averdieck, who founded a successful dessert company, than it would be if it showed some bloke saying: 'I am the cakes I eat all day.'

And it's not just young people who look for work that feels as though it fits. In the knowledge economy, where responsibilities morph and working hours are flexible, the boundaries between work and free time blur, and it's hard for many of us to tell when we're off-duty. It follows that if people are getting absorbed by their work-life, they expect their job to help them to discover and develop themselves. Identity can be linked to such basics as the satisfaction of a job well done - yet in a modern economy, work is rarely actually 'finished'.

Such ruminations would have baffled our ancestors. In his entertaining new book Work (Acumen, 2008), Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen shows how the subject has traditionally been seen one of two ways: as either a 'curse' or a 'vocation'. And for a very long time it tended towards the former. 'The etymological roots of the words for work in various languages indicate that it is something highly unpleasant,' he writes. 'This is especially clear in the case of the French travail, which stems from Latin tripalium, which was an instrument of torture composed of three sticks. The Greek ponos means sorrow, the Latin labor refers to drudgery and the German arbeit meant hardship and adversity.' Not much to identify with there.

The Greeks viewed manual labour as close to slavery, and, in his Republic, Plato gave merchants a place at the bottom of the hierarchy. Rather than the passage to fulfilment, work was felt to obstruct the proper development of reason.

Svendsen posits that this all changed with the Reformation. The birth of a Protestant work ethic put dedication to a vocation as a way of getting closer to god. Since then, it has been perfectly natural for work to define us, at least on a social level. Rare is the accountant who, being asked what they do, responds: 'I record rare bird song' - even if this is actually what keeps them awake at night. 'At a party, I'd definitely introduce myself with my day job at Towers Perrin,' says Radha Chakraborty, a partner at the professional services firm who also writes and produces films. 'I'm certainly not a film-maker who does a bit of consulting to get by.'

Chakraborty is a multi-faceted 30-something who supplements her high-powered day job with an unrelated yet defining pursuit outside work. It seems disingenuous to call it a hobby when names like Stephen Mangan and Keira Knightley appear on her resume. And yet she harbours no ambition to ditch the main occupation. 'Film is definitely a core part of me, so I went part-time to do it,' she says. The two sides are perfectly compatible. A finance background is very good for production work, as is my consulting experience. And as film isn't my full-time job, I can be more precious about the projects I choose, working only on the films I identify with.'

This is what CIPD's Holbeche describes as a 'splitscreen ability to compartmentalise and put adrenalin into wildly different things', something she sees a lot in the under-35s. 'Somehow, they work to a level of energy and pace where different things spin off each other.'

Note the feats of high-achieving Tim Brabants, a British kayaker who competed in the Athens Olympics, went straight back to working 80-hour weeks as a doctor in A&E, then won Olympic gold in Beijing. No identity crisis for him: he just does both. And instead of burnout, each side of his identity seems to keep the whole in equilibrium.

How this attitude has emerged now is complex, but the popular psychology of Abraham Maslow comes close to explaining it. His famous 'hierarchy of needs', expounded in a 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation, was expressed in the form of a pyramid layered with groups of human motivations, each of which depended on the fulfilment of the ones below before they could themselves be addressed. The gist is that when, and only when, people have secured their fundamental needs - for air, food and shelter, family, friends and the like - will they seek to satisfy life's subtler concepts, such as self-esteem, confidence and respect. It helps to explain the difference between, say, the Baby Boomers and Generation Y. Whereas the former tend to put the security of a career first, the latter - who have come into maturity in a time of unprecedented abundance - respond very differently to work. 'A lot of my colleagues in their twenties are focused on self-actualisation,' says Chakraborty. 'They're more into following their personality and being a complete person than pursuing a track in a particular career.'

Maslow imagined a hypothetical island, Eupsychia, home to 1,000 self-actualising bods from the top of his pyramid - people who sought to assimilate work into their identity and would harness their self-awareness for the good of the whole. It follows that if employers tap into this sense of identity by meeting the self-actualisers' needs for esteem and belonging, they can increase staff loyalty. Sixty-five years on, lo and behold, workers have become 'talent', and it's routine for firms to tout themselves as a conduit for self-realisation. 'Be the best', as the British Army ad puts it.

Arup, the design and engineering group, actively seeks people with a strong sense of identity. 'We want mavericks, people who want to be different,' says group HR director Stella Littlewood. 'But we find we have to make that clear to graduates: "We expect you to be different, and we'll be bored if you act just like everybody else".'

Clearly, Arup isn't like other recruiters. It has a 'spiritual employment contract', for starters. One horse-loving administrator put her profile on Arup's internal networking site and wound up as special adviser in its construction of the Sydney and Beijing Olympics equestrian arenas.

Is there a danger, though, in this approach? It might create a breed of solipsistic soul-searchers who waste hours wondering: 'Is this really what I'm meant to be doing?'. We're so sold on the idea that there is somehow a job out there that's a perfect fit that we may be failing to make the most of a role that is still a perfectly decent way of getting paid.

This attitude may be a consequence of the rise of consumerism. A big part of our identity derives from what we consume, whether slavishly collecting designer labels or carrying an eco-friendly sack around that declares: 'Plastic is not my bag.' Is this now creeping into work, too?

Companies have long applied marketing techniques to recuitment, using employee segmentation, working out what potential recruits identify with and packaging jobs to appeal to them. 'The experience of being employed is much more individualised now,' says Valerie Garrow of the Institute of Employment Studies. 'It used to be represented by unions, with collective bargaining. Now it's personal development plans.'

Job ads sell roles like a dream product, tapping into applicants' identity needs in the way that luxury car brands target affluent drivers. The problem with consumption is the waste, the throwaway element - people are locked into a constant search for something even better. When jobs promise to fulfil our needs in the same way, we might shop for a new post, discarding the old one like an unwanted suit along the way.

Of course, if Maslow is right, the quest for identity is a luxury of abundance. And if something suddenly blocks fulfilment of our more basic needs, we might find ourselves forgetting our sophisticated work expectations. Take the financial crisis: seeing self-styled masters of the universe emerging from City offices with their possessions in a cardboard box is like watching Maslow's pyramid crumbling in real time.

A major threat to our lifestyles, from surging sea-levels to the rise of China, would give the cult of the individual a serious knock: it's hard to complain that something doesn't fit your creative aspirations when you're sitting at the desk in six inches of water, working minimum wage in a Chinese call-centre.

Perhaps the quest for self needs realigning, at least in some quarters. Identity seems to assume an unhealthy prominence in the education of American schoolkids, for example. They are now taught a version of Frere Jacques that may send a shiver down the spine of HR directors: 'I am special, I am special, look at me, you will see, someone very special... ' A jingle for the next Orange ad, perhaps.

BOB SEALE - PARTNER, KPMG

When I wake up in the morning, I just feel like a middle-aged bloke in need of a cup of tea, trying to stop World War III breaking out among the kids. I just put the suit on and off I go. But my job is really me, no doubt at all: I'm well organised, I don't suffer fools gladly and I'm very into the team ethic.

I'm 43, and know how it works: you move up the ladder to get where you want in life, with the aim of providing for the wife and family. But then you start thinking: "What challenges have I got left in terms of me being a person?"

Some people like to throw themselves down mountains with planks of wood on their feet. Others jump out of planes. You won't catch me doing that. If I wanted to do that I'd have been born a fly or a bird. But I do need challenges, otherwise I would get to this thing called a midlife crisis. I've already got the convertible.

When I qualified as an accountant, my mission was to get through the selection criteria for the Royal Marine reserves. I liked the physical training, and the demands of sending your body through hell. But to have another guy firing lead at you would be another thing entirely. It made me say: "Chartered accountancy is the way forward." Likewise, boxing bloody hurts and makes me glad I'm still an accountant.

I'd never boxed until early last year. My wife roped me into boxercise at the local gym, and I ended up doing eight rounds with Clinton McKenzie, the former British champion, for an Alzheimer's charity. I was shaking like a leaf, until he sent blood pouring out of my nose. Even the sparring was sheer hell. There was certainly no light-bulb moment where I thought: "Maybe I should ditch the office job."

The gym brings out a different side of me. They don't know where I work - all they know is I'm an accountant. I like the broad cross-section of society there. It brings me down to earth. And the only talk is of "how's your boxing?"

LAMORNA TRAHAIR - CO-FOUNDER, LEAGUE OF ADVENTURISTS

I'm lucky - I'm 23, and doing a job that incorporates an approach to life I genuinely strive for outside the office. So I can develop the person I am, rather than building a second "work" personality. In the last couple of years I've had to develop quickly, and my job has become invaluable in creating the person I am. That's inevitable: the two are inextricably linked.

Is my job really me? With no hesitation, yes. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, on the Dorset-Wiltshire border, and was always outdoors, messing around in tree-houses and rowing boats. My family describes me as having "rogue genes". I was going to go to university and study medicine, as I assumed you were supposed to go that route to find a career. Only circumstance and opportunity diverted me off that track. I've always taken the approach that if I'm given an opportunity I'll take it. And that if it seems like a good thing to do, it probably is.

For me, both work and play have to involve an adrenaline fix. I get a nice buzz when all of it goes to plan - whether that's skiing, organising an event and seeing that everyone survived in one piece, or coming out of a meeting with a signed contract.

These days, I don't have time to indulge in the events, so I have to get my fix vicariously. But the challenges I encounter working in places like India are adventures in themselves. That satisfies a lot of my needs. And the entrepreneurial element could well outlive my adventurism. I'm not sure I'd ever want to do anything too corporate, but building a company is a growing passion.

All the jobs I've done have felt like me, because I've actively sought them out for that fit. This approach did result in some periods of unemployment, but I kept pushing for the thing I knew would press all the buttons.'

SUSAN BEWLEY - HOSPITAL CONSULTANT

I'm a 50-year-old Irish-Londoner, a mother and an obstetrician at St Thomas' hospital, central London. These are all big parts of my identity, emotional life and integrity.

I followed my great-grandfather, grandfather, father and lots of aunties and uncles into medicine. It was a family value. My parents weren't merely parents: they were important people doing important jobs. This probably prepared me for the identity you take on as a doctor, the metaphorical white coat that means you're never really off-duty. Certain behaviour is off-limits. As soon as you qualify, you think: "I'll have doctor on my gravestone."

This isn't a job where you can dream of becoming something else. The training is specified, and takes a number of years. Even then, you're still learning all the time. And the skills are not transferable - you can't go from obstetrics to foot surgery. I suppose I have the right character traits for it. But are they character traits, or are they products of the training? I'm not really sure.

Nothing is easy in this job, and you have to work at it. After 30 years, it feels like a marriage. There's an emotional involvement, and when something goes wrong, you can be beaten up, or beat yourself up. I wouldn't have those scars and bruises if I'd been sitting there crafting wood or something. But if you're not changed by this job, you're not doing it right.

Is my job really me? It provides a lot of things I want, and I provide what it wants. It's not a perfect fit, but it's pretty good.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today