identity and the pandemic
Without a doubt, the past 12 months have dramatically changed the relationship between individuals and their work. Whether you have been working from home, have a job which you have been unable to do, or have been under immense pressure we have all had to change and adapt to the new reality which has been caused by the global pandemic.
In this article we explore what that means for our ‘identity’: how we think about who we are. We often think about who we are in terms of what we do, along with the things we value and believe and which give us purpose. Many aspects of these pieces of our lives have been thrown up in the air and have intermingled in previously unseen ways. We’ve juggled across work and home, friends and family, usually in one physical space, for months. How has the experience changed how we think about who we are, and how can we be the authors of our own identity going forward?
Many things define our identity. Where we come from, the people we grow up with, and the decisions we make about how we live our lives. Over the course of the past century people have become more geographically and socially mobile, and as adults find themselves far away from many of these influences from our younger years. As we venture out on our own, we define ourselves more by the choices we make – our careers, our friends and who we may choose to partner with. As a result, we are much more likely than previous generations to consider these aspects of our lives as the basis of our ‘success’. We aspire to a better job, a bigger house, or some other form of external validation that tells us that we’re doing well. But these things tend to be compartmentalised – this is the me at work, this is the me at home, maybe as a partner or a parent, and this is me when I’m out with my friends.
This has all been thrown in to one big covid melting pot and boundaries have been blurred between previously separate aspects of our lives. Our colleagues who may have only known the version of us we share in the office have seen the insides of our homes, have seen our children running around and may have become aware of challenges in our lives that we kept hidden before. Conversely, work has crept into our home existence. Where once we could at least hope to leave the office and switch off now peoples’ expectations are that you’re always available, because let’s be honest, what else could you be doing? The previously neat compartmentalisation of our different identities has disappeared and we’re all now living in one big house share.
For millennials and people in their twenties however, work and person identities have not always been split in the same way. The younger generation have grown up in a world full of technology and in a period of rapid change. They have developed with exposure to dramatic events and through social media have had platforms to shape and share their views, all whilst context switching between real life and virtual interactions. They’ve developed a sense of self by a much younger age, and when they enter the workplace they expect their employer to align with their views and opinions, not the other way round. Rather than waiting for a job or a house or some other material thing to come along to validate their success in life they tend to have a greater sense of self belief which creates more willingness to accept fluidity in their chosen career. They are fundamentally more defined by a sense of self based on their own opinions and values than that conferred on them by a job. As a result, prior to the pandemic, we were already a seeing a trend towards more ‘career pluralists’ and people wanting, in fact, expecting, more flexibility around work life balance.
A 2016 Google study looked at difference between segmentors and integrators, people who are able to neatly separate different parts of their lives versus those who blur the two. Their research showed that those who rigidly separate their personal and work lives are significantly happier about their wellbeing, but interestingly two thirds of Google employees identified themselves as integrators. Our experience of the last twelve months has brought this issue into sharp focus for many and has accelerated a number of these trends that we were seeing pre-pandemic. A physical separation from our place of work has changed the relationship between an individual and the organisation they work for and therefore the nature of that work-defined identity. For many this has encouraged some introspection and soul searching around the role that work and professional recognition play in our lives. Actually, might we be happier if in the way out of this pandemic we found a way to reconcile these multiple identities in a harmonious way where we can retain some distinction between different parts of our lives but identify and value ourselves in a more holistic way?
A 2017 article offers a potential framework for moving forward. The research study interviewed 48 people who considered themselves ‘career pluralists’ and how they managed to stay authentic across multiple different roles. Their conclusion was that over time people could move from synchronising across identities to harmonising, letting them coexist in a way which mutually enhanced these different aspects of themselves. The key to this transition is in accepting that we are all complex and multi-faceted individuals and that by seeing the different parts of ourselves as ways to express and cultivate this we can enrich our sense of our ‘whole self’.
As we emerge from the shadow of the Covid pandemic we each have the opportunity to be the author of our own identity narrative. The distinction between work and personal has been fundamentally altered and provides a unique contextual setting in which to redefine our sense of self. By nurturing all aspects of our lives that we value in a way that allows us to identify common threads and themes we can potentially enrich what our identity means to us and like our younger friends and colleagues, how we choose to share that identity with the rest of the world. It may benefit us to look to the younger generation to see what lessons we can learn from them.