Identity and Work

Who was my paternal grandfather? He was a former railroad worker.

Who was my maternal grandfather? He was a former truck driver.

Who was my father? A lawnmower/snowblower wholesale parts salesman.

What do you do for a living? That’s the way many conversations begin, right? It’s a good, inoffensive question to ask someone when you’re meeting them for the first time. We all have to work so it’s a safer conversation-starter than “Do you believe in the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper?” or “So what do you think about abortion?”

It’s also one of countless ways in which “what you do” becomes so wrapped up in your identity that untangling them becomes a frustrating and largely fruitless task.

For over a decade when someone asked the innocuous “What do you do?” question I could tell them I was a social media marketer. Or I managed content marketing programs. Or some other variation on that theme depending on what terminology was in vogue at the moment. It was a good answer to have, even if most people didn’t get what that meant exactly.

That question has been somewhat harder to answer of late. When I was still doing a couple social program management projects I could still lean on my earlier answer. But since those have dried up I’ve not known what to say. Freelancer? Writer? Starbucks barista-in-training?

More importantly even then the answer I give to other people, I haven’t known what answer to give myself. Over the course of my career my self-identity has gotten unfortunately tied up in my work. So staying up until all hours rearranging client editorial calendars wasn’t just what I did, that’s who I was. I was that guy. But that’s not me anymore.

So the last several months of job searching has left me not only struggling to find work but also struggling with who I was. Was that really who I was? And as I careen toward 42, is that the guy I still want to be? Or am I past that part of my life and ready for something new and differently challenging?

That’s lead to a lot of soul searching and, quite honestly, with my flirting with a full depressive meltdown. It’s one I’m only now starting to pull out of, with the help of those who should truly be the cornerstone of my identity as a man, father and husband.

It’s hard, though. Everything about the world reinforces the need to work. That Protestant work ethic is baked into so much of society, not just because work has value (both monetary and for character development, which I do believe) but because it’s the lowest common denominator was have in common with most everyone around us. We are expected to be working. When I’ve told people I was unemployed it was as if I told them I was contagious with whatever Kevin Spacey, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman were trying to eradicate in Outbreak. Unemployment goes against what we as a society have been trained to believe and those in that situation are viewed as having broken the promise to abide by that Protestant work ethic.

I’m still not what would be called “fully employed.” I have a part-time retail job that gets me out of the house, which was a big part of stemming the rising tide of depression, and a handful of freelance writing gigs that are bringing in some revenue. There’s still a ways to go, though.

Importantly, this is the first time in likely 30 years that I’ve asked myself “What do I want to do?” The problem has been that I don’t know how to answer that question. So much of my life has been spent doing what others expected of me or what I needed to do that my wants and desires weren’t anywhere near the top of my considerations. Now, though, with some outside help I’ve enlisted, I’m trying to get to the heart of that question and more fully answer it.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m still more well-off than 80% or more of the world’s population. But this struggle with identity and the role having a job plays in shaping that identity has been a rough one over the last several months. My heart goes out to others going through a similar rough patch in their own lives.

By Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

1 comment

  1. It’s really brave to admit this, Chris. I think you speak for a majority of us who’ve left the Comms agency world but don’t know where to go or what to do next. I’ve certainly battled it myself and had to make a drastic change. You will find your path soon, I promise.

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