November 8, 2013 12:09 pm

The great middle-class identity crisis

‘Fewer stay in the same profession for life. We are ceasing to be our jobs’
Illustration by Luis Grañena of various professions©Luis Grañena

I once had dinner in San Francisco with a group of independent bookshop owners. How, I asked them, do people end up running their own bookshops? Oh, they said, there was a set route, pretty much the equivalent of taking holy orders.

It went like this: you are writing a graduate thesis. You start working in a bookshop to make a bit of cash. Your thesis tails off. You increase your hours in the shop. Eventually the ageing bookshop owner forces you to take over the thing. This is a profession of erudite drifters with completion anxiety.

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Simon Kuper

That’s been the middle-class experience for ever: people have a professional identity. We are what we do. We choose professions that suit our identity, and then those professions enhance our identity. Meticulous types become accountants, and then accountancy makes them even more meticulous. Men in particular have always defined themselves partly through their work. But that era is ending. With the economic crisis and technological change (robots are taking over the world), ever fewer of us have satisfying jobs or stay in the same profession for life. People are ceasing to be their jobs. That is forcing them to find new identities.

I’ve spent years doing amateur research into professional identity. A barrister distilled the essential characteristics of his profession for me: “You have to plead whichever side of the case happens to hire you, so you need to be amoral. And then you have to be persuasive. It’s the profile of a psychopath.” A former journalist who fled into investment banking gave me his take on bankers: “People who are interested in money, usually because they grew up without much.”

Politicians are despised but in my experience they tend to be friendly and gregarious. When I once accidentally stumbled into a room full of leftwing politicians from around the world, I noticed something else: they almost all looked good. These are the people confident enough to enter de facto popularity contests and have their faces enlarged on to posters.

Professional identities change over time. When I entered journalism 20 years ago, it was quite beery. Then the internet arrived and required nonstop writing for falling pay. Nowadays journalists seem to be strivers and, increasingly, women. (The fastest way to feminise a profession is to reduce pay.)

Academia used to attract people who liked ideas. But with the decline of grand theory, and the pressure to publish endless papers, academics now tend to be hardworking types willing to devote their lives to minuscule specialities.

(In Dutch slang, this type of person is known as “an ant-lover”: someone obsessed with tiny things.) Other professions are being destroyed by technology. When one of the bookshop owners asked me that night to name my favourite bookshop and I stupidly answered, “Amazon,” she replied: “Aargh.” Journalism is being replaced by PR.

The victims of these changes lose their professional identities. This happens to most advertising copywriters, for instance, after about age 40. In these cases, the person’s story about who they are suddenly collapses. That’s one reason why unemployed people tend to be unhappy. Any sudden change in job status also confuses friends and family.

We middle classes are simply experiencing what the working classes have been through since the 1970s. Miners and factory workers had hard, unpleasant jobs but these jobs conferred identity – in part precisely because they were hard. Today most working-class jobs entail serving people: pouring coffee, driving taxis or looking after toddlers or geriatrics. But it’s difficult to construct an identity from servile work. In one sequence of the Peanuts cartoon, Snoopy is a “World famous grocery checkout clerk”. He always starts enthusiastically then gets disillusioned. “Sigh. Seven hours and 40 minutes to go …” he’ll say, or: “It’s hard being a world famous grocery clerk.”

A class divide separates people who choose their job from people who don’t. Today’s young people mostly don’t. If they have work, it’s often servile. That means they have to define themselves without the benefit of professional identity. Many do it through consumption: you are your Mac or your favourite kind of coffee. Social media offer other strategies. On Twitter, you get 160 characters to write your biography – in essence, to state your identity. Younger people often just name their favourite sports teams or bands, or use a tag such as: “The only thing stopping me from being pure white trash is my lack of motivation.”

For many of these people, their Twitter account or Facebook page is their identity. It’s the place where they present themselves to the world. These sites have taken off partly because our other identities have weakened – or, as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman puts it, have become “liquid”. People once defined themselves by their job, church, nation and family. But in these secular, jobless, globalised times when ever more of us live alone, we are no longer very sure who we are.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

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Letter in response to this column:

Identity-building options that are open to any youngster / From Mr Michael Bruyn

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