There are many ways we define our personal identity. Often, we define it by the roles we play in life.

We might think of ourselves as a child, parent, sibling, spouse, lover, friend… It is remarkable how we integrate all these different roles and relationships into our own, singular person.

People may often identify themselves according to their work. It’s been happening throughout history, as we can hear in occupational surnames such as Carpenter, Carter, Baker and Wheeler. We even link our identity with what we do for bureaucratic reasons. For example, every traveller is required to state their occupation when departing from or arriving in Australia.

Personal value has shifted focus from our character, personality, and relationships, to our role or place in society. It is no longer a question of who we are but what we do.

Casual conversations, too, eventually veer towards the question, “what do you do?” But a few years ago, I noticed the response to the question “How are you?” was changing from “I’m well” to “I’m busy”. I wondered what lay behind this altered response. What were they trying to say?

I concluded that the words “I am busy” are a proxy for “I am valued/needed”. My worth is affirmed by the fact I am in demand to the point of being busy.

If I’m correct, this marks a subtle but important change. Personal value has problematically shifted focus from our character, personality and relationships to our role or place in society. It is no longer a question of who we are but what we do.

Perhaps we should reflect on some of the deeper questions to do with identity, meaning and value.

For the most part, we might not notice this change in emphasis. However, if what I suspect is true, a holiday such as the enforced Christmas vacation could be a period of stress and dislocation for people who define themselves by their work – especially if they live alone and are without family or friends.

For some people, a job is not only a source of identity, it may also be their principal social environment – providing a regular opportunity for human contact. For such people, being deprived of this context can be a profound loss. To be ‘on leave’ is to be cut off from the principal source of their identity.

Those of us with established social networks could help by reaching out to such people and making sure they’re included in holiday celebrations. Among other things, this sends a signal that the person is valued for more than their work.

Work-focused individuals could also volunteer for charities needing help during the holiday period. This would provide a readymade social context and a valuable, alternative source of meaning and identity.

However, especially at Christmas time, perhaps we should reflect on some of the deeper questions to do with identity, meaning and value. At the heart of ethics is a belief in the intrinsic worth of every person – irrespective of their gender, race, religion, sexuality… or job.

Join the conversation

Do you let your job define you?