The five modern challenges to personal identity

It's widely accepted now that 'being ourselves' is one of the keys to personal happiness. It is also a key to effectiveness in the workplace, at home, and in our personal lives.

In this article, I outline five reasons why I believe it’s harder to ‘be yourself’ than ever before.  In a subsequent article, I will deal with how we might raise our self identity and develop our own unique authenticity.  Understanding the five reasons will help us tackle the dilemma of 'why am I so miserable when I'm so well off'.

The five reasons boil down to a combination of the pressures of work, and the pressures in society, which undermine our own self identity.  Without being clear about our own identity, we lose the foundation for being truly authentic.  Let's go then...

Reason 1:  The Breakdown of work-life balance

Put simply, it is no longer clear for most working people where work stops and home life starts.  More than that, work is increasingly dominating the lives of most people, and even part time jobs look pretty full time.  There are lots of reasons for this.  Just some of them include the following.

Firstly, the globalisation of work, which means needing to talk out of office hours with people who work in other countries in different time zones.  Secondly, the increasing pressure under our economic system to cut costs, which often means working longer hours – and for some the opposite work-life issue of being unemployed.  Thirdly the development of technology, which means that you don’t leave work when you leave the office.

In addition to putting huge pressure on our personal lives, this means more of our own identity is tied up with our work – after all, it's where we focus most of our time and attention.

Reason 2:  Loss of personal identity at work

In two crucial respects, our personal identities have been compromised by work developments in the past 50 years.  First, we have seen the death of the job for life, or career for life.  Given that much of our identity has historically come from work, this is not good news.  You may remember your parents or grandparents describing themselves as 'I'm an engineer', 'I work for General Motors', 'I'm a teacher in this or that school', or 'I'm a plumber'.  Whatever it was, it was a large part of their personal identity, and we can no longer count on this.  In this recession, millions of financial service and public sector workers are finding out this truth.

The second way that personal identities have been undermined is more subtle, and perhaps unintentional.  Fifty years ago, you were paid to turn up to work, and perform a day's labour.  That was it.  It didn't matter what you thought, or what you said, unless you went totally over the top!  However, this has changed – people are now paid to think, and businesses increasingly expect people to think in particular ways.  Not only that, but moves by organisations to adopt corporate values that all employees are expected to adhere to puts more pressure on our personal identity.  After all, if we put all our focus on corporate values, then we risk losing sight of our own ones.

Reason 3:  Fragmentation of family & community

In 1960, the family model was clear.  You were born into a family, and family units stuck together, usually within neighbourhoods that also stuck together.  Your childhood friends were your friends for life, and you'd often end up working with them.  Not so nowadays.  Families are fragmented, parents often divorced before children reach adulthood, family members move further away from each other, with fewer connections.  Friends lose touch, often as people change jobs.

All of this means that, for many people, identity can no longer come from family or community the way it once did.  No wonder there is an epidemic of people trying to retrace their family roots – not to mention websites linking old friends together.  These are responses to loss of personal identity.

Reason 4:  The pressure to conform

The pressure to conform is clear in a work context, as we've just described.  However, there are also increasing pressures in society to conform, starting with our teenage years.  Fads and fashions add to a natural desire most of us have to 'fit in' with others.  So we wear the same clothes, buy the same music, wear the same makeup, as those with whom we want to fit.  What's more, as the power of advertising has become more subtle, we do not notice its encroachment on our personal identity.  Everything from the phone we use to the car we drive, and even the friends we have, are all affected by this.

In addition to compromising our identity, advertising contributes to one more threat to maintaining our own identity and authenticity.

Reason 5:  The propaganda of instant happiness

Go on, show me an advert where it doesn't claim in some way that, if you buy the product, you’ll be happier (or less unhappy). We live in a society dominated by instant gratification, where having it now is the key to happiness.  Western capitalism has largely been constructed on the promise of 'more prosperity, pay rises, promotions, longer holidays, etc.  Our society is built on the premise of 'when I have that, I'll be happy'.  Whatever 'that' is.  Then we wonder why we aren't happy when we do get that. 

Of course, it is obvious that happiness does come from within.  But no one made money by accepting this truth, so our happiness is made conditional on achieving other things.

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So there you are.  Five reasons why we are increasingly losing touch with our own identity.  Without our own identity, we feel increasingly unhappy.  It should not be surprising to discover that there are now more healers in the UK than there are doctors.  After all, why would we expect our bodies to be healthy when our spirits are so patently not?

The first step to health is to admit the problem, kinda like admitting 'I'm an alcoholic'.  The second step is to understand some of the reasons why it happened, and I hope this article throws some light on this.

Mark Eyre

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