Work And Personal Identity

I was having a conversation recently about how much of our identity and sense of belonging comes from the workplace. As human beings, we have an innate desire to belong. The psychologist Henri Tajfel put forward Social Identity Theory in 1979 – the idea that our sense of who we are comes from the groups to which we belong. In his 2010 bestseller Bounce, Matthew Syed talks about the human need to belong as being one of “the most important human motives”. Given that we spend so much of our lives working, it makes sense that much of our social identity is generated by our work and the status that this provides.

Digging a little deeper into psychology, we can see that Frederick Herzberg spent much of his career exploring work and job satisfaction. He proposed that two key motivators for people at work are achievement and recognition for achievement.

If so much of our sense of self, purpose, and achievement comes from work, what happens when our working environment is destabilised, or when our job is put at risk?

If so much of our sense of self, purpose, and achievement comes from work, what happens when our working environment is destabilised, or when our job is put at risk? There’s mounting economic data that suggests a growing number of workers in the UK are facing ‘job precarity’, i.e. working several jobs, at minimum wage, increasingly on ‘zero hours’ contracts. Personally, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to not know whether there’s going to be enough money to put food on the table from one week to the next, much less how this affects someone’s mental and physical health in the longer term.

And yet everything points to the premise that this kind of precarity is only going to get worse; job security continues to be undermined by automation, globalisation and the offshoring of work to lower cost countries, and by an increasing number of workers competing for a diminishing number of jobs.

Over the next five years, I believe every employer in the UK will have to answer some hard questions. What kind of employer does it want to be? Does profit come before people? In certain business circles, there is increasing talk about the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ – placing social and environmental impact alongside profits as being the primary drivers of a business. Recent research data suggests that workers are increasingly drawn to values-based businesses and if a business doesn’t place its people at the forefront of its strategy, then it’s more likely to bear the brunt of skill-set scarcity.

Thought leaders in the future of workspace suggest the future workplace will increasingly become a learning environment, where employees are on a continual learning journey. In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum chairman Klaus Schwab writes about the concept of ‘talentism’ and how this is “one of the most important, emerging drivers of competitiveness”.

We need, I think, to reflect on several things. At an individual level, we need to evaluate the skills we currently have and determine whether or not we need to ‘upskill’ or upgrade our skills. Moving forward, as businesses are faced with technological alternatives to people skills, our ‘employability’ will be key, and at an individual level, we need to take ownership of that.

Where work-based skills risk becoming obsolete, we need to think of innovative ways in which we can continue to engage people in work. This is needed not only to increase overall economic productivity but also to prevent the kind of social breakdown predicted in some of the more dystopian future scenarios that some social commentators are suggesting will be a side-effect of jobs being lost to automation and AI en masse.

We’ve already seen the consequences among disenfranchised segments of the population; there’s a distinct correlation between higher unemployment areas and those communities that feel that globalisation has had a negative impact on their lives and the vote to leave the EU. If we leave automation and AI to gather momentum without asking ourselves some frank ethical questions, I believe the future socio-economic landscape could look increasingly bleak.

People are what have made commerce happen for centuries. So whilst embracing all the wonderful advantages that technology will bring, let’s not lose sight of the importance of work for humans – let’s make it a key component of any future business-planning imperatives.


Cathryn Barnard
Cathryn Barnard
AS co-founder of Working the Future, Cathryn helps business leaders prepare for the future of work. She writes about future of work trends and topics, and specifically about how commercial landscapes are set to transform and disrupt. With so many technological, socio-cultural and environmental factors converging concurrently to change the way that businesses are structured, Cathryn focuses on the transitions that business leaders and workers alike can make to both prepare for and thrive in significantly different trading environments. With a degree in modern languages and a career in staffing and recruitment, Cathryn has always been fascinated by how people communicate and interact. Having owned and run her own businesses since the late nineties, Cathryn has developed an in-depth understanding of the challenges involved in setting up and growing a business, and her experiences bring a “real-world” perspective to her writing about the future of work. Outside of work, Cathryn has a keen interest in music, theatre, and film, meeting new people and learning new things.

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