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.