Identity as Chronic Strain and Coping Strategy in the Job Loss Process
Milkie, Melissa A.
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Involuntarily losing a major social role, such as employee, may trigger a process of decline in mental health due to changes in time use, social networks, and resources. However, the experience of role loss and associated mental health outcomes is also conditioned by one's subjective experience of salient identities. I argue that exploring the ways in which identities relate to the stress process will provide us with a better understanding of mental health outcomes that follow involuntary role loss. The linkages among three strands of literature - mental health and identity, stress process, and work and occupations - have not been explored systematically. Using involuntary job loss as an illustrative example, I build on the concepts of identity discrepancies and the stress process by examining participants' identity change, identity work, and distress levels. In my research, I use data from in-depth interviews conducted at two points in time (about three months apart) from 25 unemployed or underemployed former white-collar employees. I show that involuntary job loss may trigger identity discrepancies that produce identity-based distress, but that identity work may be used to relieve this distress. I identify three types of identity discrepancies experienced by participants: verification discrepancies; temporal consistency discrepancies; and status consistency discrepancies. I also show that unemployed or underemployed people may engage in specific types of identity work to cope with and reduce the distress produced by identity discrepancies, and I identify three paths on which people may end up after job loss: 1) shifting; 2) sustaining; and 3) identity void. My results show that not all paths are equally available to everyone. Rather, structural factors guide and shape their identity work options. Specifically, social statuses and the extent of one's involvement in social institutions (e.g., family) expand or constrain these options. One's conceptions of past and future identities are also important to this process. This study demonstrates why we should include identity in processual models of distress and coping, shows how structural factors (i.e., statuses and social institutions) expand or constrain one's identity work options after job loss, and illustrates why we should expand our conceptions of identities to include the past and future. I also discuss ways in which my findings may be applied to involuntary role losses more broadly, as well as links to classic theories of the interrelation between self and society.