No Job: No Identity…No Purpose


“Why do you want to work?”
“I need to do something and I’m getting frustrated.”

This is a question and answer that comes up relatively early in conversations that I have with people. While the question isn’t surprising, you might find that the answer is. Why? Because you might expect the answer to be about needing money to eat and pay rent. But those basic needs aren’t the crux of how the unemployed person sees their biggest challenges often.

And I suppose that’s why social assistance or employment insurance are so valuable in a society, in that they take care of the most basic needs if little else. So with rent and food addressed, even those on social assistance who are unemployed have identified that work is about so much more than making money. And you might have thought money was their paramount reason for seeking employment. But really, it’s about finding an identity and having a purpose in life.

It takes about 7 minutes I’ve found to get past the pleasantries and surface talk and have someone hone in on why they really want to work. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to agree that one of the early questions we have for people when we first meet them is, “So, what do you do for a living?” in some form. What do you DO? The second ‘do’ implies employment, work, contribution. Rephrase the question then to what’s implied: “So, what employment do you have that contributes to society in order to pay your bills and how does your life have purpose?”

To the above question, imagine yourself suddenly feeling inadequate with the answer, “I’m out of work at the moment”, in some version. Some might say they are between jobs, unemployed or such-and-such by trade. Any of these translate however to being currently unemployed and out of work. So the answer in long form to the question in the previous paragraph becomes, “I don’t have employment at the present, and don’t contribute to society, can’t pay my bills independently and no I’m don’t really have a purpose with respect to work at this point.” And now you’ve hit on the real issue of why it is so critical for many people to work.

We are often identified and validated by the name of the company we work for, and by the work we do. Some titles are very broad – like a Social Worker. Being a Social Worker could mean you work in a hospital, for the homeless, advocating for those with addictions, on welfare, even in schools or homes for victims of abuse. And that’s a short list. So the next thing is the provide context by naming the employer. “I’m a Social Worker with __________.”
When you fill in the blank, the listener who asked the question, “What do you do for a living?” now has two pieces of information, your job title and employer. With those two pieces of information, they will assign you some kind of credibility in their mind, much of that based on their own past experiences ultimately giving you a high or low value in their opinion.

An example? Okay so I say I’m a Mechanic with a well-known automotive manufacturer; a fast-food franchise owner, a Cashier in a grocery store, an Investment Banker with a top 5 bank. Your own perceptions of these companies and the role I’ve identified will either leave you feeling impressed or not, but you’ll put me in some kind of pecking order. If I have no job and no employer by association, I’m at the bottom of the list in your value system because I can’t be fit in to your mental list. And this is why some unemployed say, “I’m a Carpenter by trade” when they are unemployed because they are trying to get onto your list in a higher position and save face themselves even though they lack the second component – the name of an employer with which to gain credibility in your eyes.

It is this identity, and having a purpose, that the unemployed often tell me they need most of all. When they get rejected outright or ignored by companies to whom they apply, they try again with another employer. Get ignored or rejected again, and the message that they start to internalize is that they are no longer valued as whatever it is they used to do or are trained and educated to do. And now they have a loss of identity themselves. “If nobody sees me as a Carpenter and wants to hire me, what else can I do? I’ve got no idea.” And you now have a lost soul trying to re-identify themselves.

When employed, you’ve got a purpose when you roll out of bed. Think about it. You get dressed in your, “work” clothes don’t you? You drive or take the bus to “work”. Run in to someone at the coffee shop, and you can’t stop to talk too long because, “I’ve got to get to work”. Then you come home and someone says, “How was your day at work?” When your relatives call you on the phone they say, “How’s your job coming?” It all centers on your work which is really all about purpose and contributing.

Unemployed people don’t always just want to work as much as they NEED to work. What they really need and crave is the identity and purpose that goes with it. That’s why they get so ticked when ignored entirely by companies who don’t acknowledge their applications with even confirmation of an application. It hurts, and it hurts the ego bad.

Work is only part of who we are and how we define ourselves, but it’s a huge piece. Give a person a job and you’ll be giving someone a new identity and purpose. Watch for the change in ego, growing pride, but most of all relief.

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2 thoughts on “No Job: No Identity…No Purpose

  1. What you say is so true. I think that is why most employers don’t want to hire someone who is unemployed. They prefer to hire those who already working. Unemployed people have no identity and therefore little or no worth in society in most people’s eyes.

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