Psychology Sociology

Identity Crisis

As our modern times become increasingly uncertain, identity crises become a prominent feature in our lives. The collective moral obligations that once provided a sense of security and predictability have turned into lines drawn in the sand by individuals, constantly washed away by the tides of our fluid times, clearing the slate for us to write and rewrite our own identities.

Nietzsche pronounced the death of God, the superiority of the church eroded, and the nuclear family gave way to a plethora of novel household possibilities. We are now free from the supposed ‘chains of tradition’. But are we now truly free?

No longer dominated by the church, we are free to further science. No longer confined to a traditional family, we are free to form households that better fit with our unique desires. Free from moral certitudes, our desires burst into infinity. We explore the dark corners of our subjectivity, experiment with our bodies, and seek self-identity in a multitude of fleeting social groups. Although we now have the freedom to choose our own path in life, fear and uncertainty are the new chains that keep us from living up to our potential.

Without the clearly defined social roles and strict moral guidelines of the past, we find ourselves moving in and out of new roles. Job-hopping was once a sign of an under-performing employee; but now, job-hopping has become the norm. Millennials are expected to have six different jobs on average, throughout their adult life.  Whether we like it or not, we are forced to constantly redefine ourselves and our place in the world. Erik Erikson coined the term ‘identity crisis’ to describe this phenomenon.

Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Erikson generally reserved the concept of identity-crisis for the adolescent stage of development. Now, characteristics associated with the adolescent stage are extending into all areas of life. Teenagers are no longer the only ones trying to find themselves.

Established professionals no-longer find themselves in the stable work-arrangements once known when baby-boomers were moving into the job market. Even baby-boomers are now forced to adjust to this new social environment. Many have either lost their jobs due to outsourcing, had to redefine their role due to the changing demands of the high-tech workplace, decided to change jobs to take on more fulfilling work, or retired and are trying to redefine their new role outside of the professional world.

Identity and role confusion are no longer limited to the adolescent stage of the life-course. It is a social phenomenon affecting every stage in the life-course. Perhaps we can call this the adolescentification of society. We are all engaged in the work of identity negotiation and renegotiation, trying to find our place in a shifting social order.

Luckily, identity reformation does not necessarily need to entail an identity crisis. Rather than identifying with our specific roles/ job titles, in today’s job-market, it is perhaps more useful to identify with our values and skills, instead. Although job titles and roles frequently change, and are often out of our control, our values and skills are enduring. We can carry our values and skills from role to role, developing our character as we learn to apply them in new contexts.

Prestige, power, and pay may vary between roles, but our character is enduring. We must base our pride in the deeper virtues associated with our values and unique skills we offer the world. Misplaced pride produces fragile identities, dependent on a fixed set of social arrangements. Tasked with the responsibility to build and rebuild our identities in our fluid times, we need to remember what is important to us and carry these things along as we traverse our turbulent professional lives.





  1. Thanks for pointing me to Erikson as the source of the term ‘identity crisis’. Would you recommend reading the book (potentially for a dissertation) or is there a shorter essay that boils down what I fear will be a boring 300+ pages.

    1. I highly recommend reading his book “Identity: Youth and Crisis”. If it’s for a dissertation, the more boring the better. That way you get the deeper insights others are not willing to spend the time and effort uncovering. Keep up the academic hustle!

  2. Steve, Great perspective on the evolution of Western society. There is definitely a delay in growing up and at almost 60, I can say I have been through many life stages that included my identity. Child, Student, adolescent, student, Military, Wife, Mother, Grandmother, caretaker for aging parents, homemaker, and now adolescent again…I have experienced stress and strain of my personal identity. Grief over the loss of my career, children moving on, etc… Life is so complex these days. I hate to overthink this, but I do believe our values evolve withe us and at the end, which is ever longer, we have more stages to deal with. Loss of loved ones, loss of health, loss of social support through our church, work, neighbors and friends. It was so much more simple when we had to farm and make our own food and clothing and died in childbirth… My overall point is the longer healthier life is fertile ground for greater identity challenges.

  3. I always learn something valuable from reading your material. The word “adolescentification” definitely caught my attention. I thought how has the word not emerged and applied yet. So, bravo on bringing the term to light. Lastly, I commend your overall message on regarding character over social roles, which I would add is to regard our internal selves over the external selves.

  4. The Fear that we all have to deal with is what (you all) should use to make the better judgment for all things and the top of the list should be your moral choices in life, to set a good example for all ,and I feel that it starts with the heavens and what is to come.

  5. Steve, I think that you’d be sympathetic to the thought that we are social beings, which means that our “identity” is defined largely in relation to others. While it is convenient to take pot-shots at religion, it did define a context of ethical regulation (nominally through priests, but also backed by widely disseminated moral writings that acted as a check on abuse of privilege) that facilitated the development of relationships outside of the family circle.

    When the church became intellectually passe, political activism took up the reins, but for most of us today that role has shifted to school and the workplace. Historical evaluation shows that they have struggled similarly with that role, as evidenced most obviously by the extensive body of non-discrimination law.

    Culturally, the greatest difficulty in America (as explored in Michael Moore’s latest film) is that we lionize predatory personalities. We try to legislative ethical norms, but the tort and criminal enforcement systems simply can’t keep up with the pace of transgression, and so the exploiters are left largely unchecked.

    I raise this point because it makes the exploration of identity a hazardous process.

    It was at one point the role of the church and family to provide a framework that guided people through this exploration. Science provides statistics that document the cost of failed ethical networks, but it has not produced a substitute that is accessible to great bulk of the population. Into this milieu, the “entertainment” industry pours illusory noise, with a volume and ubiquity that completely overwhelms other sources of guidance.

    Do you foresee the coalescence of a cultural locus that will generate a countervailing source of moral guidance?

    1. Thank you for these great points! To answer your question, I think it it has already happened to an extent in the realm of professional ethics, but not with the same level of integrative strength found in religion and ethnic tradition. This post was a bit different for me because, as you point out, I emphasize the individual agency. Although I may seem to devalue the weight of ‘the social’ here, this is not necessarily the case. You values and skills are very much socially embedded. Your values are derived from socialization within a particular cultural context and your skills are also partly derived from that socialization, but are also completely dependent upon a context that requires those particular skills. The problem of identity crisis partly depends on individual mindset, but also depends on the social context. For example, it could be problematic if one’s skills are no longer valuable to a social context, forcing the individual to redefine themselves beyond just their role.

      1. I’m still struggling. You used the word “character,” which to me is manifested most directly in how we respond to adversity that may require us to adapt our values and evolve new skills. There’s something at the core of our personalities that determines the degree to which we indulge in destruction in wartime, for example, or that drives us to figure out how to build wireless communications systems.

        Church often brings people looking for a place in which to deal with needs that are not addressed in other institutional structures. It is therefore often a place in which character is manifested most directly.

        Obviously, the same occurs in other settings, but there are countervailing pressures in those contexts. In my experience, only in the setting of a redemptive religion are individuals able to decouple material outcomes from the expression of character. I could imagine that NGOs provide a similar environment, but envision that they would be unlikely to penetrate the culture to the same depth because they tend to be organized around specific issues, where religions purport to serve the individual and humanity in the abstract.

          1. Thanks for reminding me of the thread of philosophy. Obviously, there has been a powerful mixing between the two – looking at the origins of Christianity, we might argue that religion is the popularization of philosophy.

            I am aware of at least one movement that might qualify as a replacement, although it’s in nascent stages. That would be ecstatic dance/full contact improv and the associated purveyors of organic foods and holistic healing arts. Paradoxically, in an ecstatic dance celebration, talking on the dance floor is discouraged. I find that character is revealed by the methods used to negotiate intentions. While some people become acrobatic, I find most enjoyment in engagements organized around mutual surrender that bring healing and personal empowerment.

  6. Agree With Tubularsock but not the f*ck the society you live in bit! Yes, society has had a lot to answer for with the pressure to be defined and categorised, some which were not chosen or agreed with ourselves. But we ourselves allow, and allowed, subconsciously and consciously whenever the mood takes us. We have always had ‘internal’ freedom to choose our own path, the only issue is what price were we willing to pay for it? I feel freedom is not a state that we arrive at, it is not a destination. It is a state of being and therefore with it comes fear and uncertainty. These are not ‘chains’ unless we allow them to be, they are part of process, the formula, if you will, to more certainty, to you..

  7. It sounds like what you’re describing as an unstable personality is caused by relying too much on the environmental inputs, and i know that the environment has a huge part to play into shaping us into who we currently are, but, the individual shouldn’t be overlooked, so in nature vs. nurture, it’s BOTH the nature AND the nurture (or you can see it as an interaction between the nature AND the nurture) that makes us into who we are.

  8. Great post! I think there’s much to be said for the erosion of the once more rigidly defined social structures and the loosening of their constitutive values which has slowly but inevitably led to a state of moral plasticity and social anomie.

  9. Excellent blog Steve! I agree with both you and Tubularsock. One also needs to replace the program in our heads that our parents and peers implanted that created limitations that we as people carry around with us. Replace the “no can do” program with the “can do” program. Just saying..,

  10. Steve, Tubularsock would simplify all of this to, love yourself and fuck the society you live in. That society is a lie and a misdirection from what one happens to be. Enough delusion.

    As you said, “Although we now have the freedom to choose our own path in life, fear and uncertainty are the new chains that keep us from living up to our potential” but in truth “fear and uncertainty” has always been the chains that kept people from waking up. It is nothing new. And one ALWAYS has had the “freedom to choose” but one needs to break out of the illusion!

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective! I don’t think we should disregard social things altogether, but I agree that ideologies can create illusions that keep us from living more fulfilling lives.

    2. Fear is our greatest constraint. Jean Paul Sartre believed that the only constraint we suffer is choice. But when you fear to make a choice, you have constrained yourself further. I Know fear holds me back from reaching my potential & finding the satisfaction & freedom I Truly desire. We all need some sort of “Make The Choice Without Fear” support group.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s