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Without A Career, How Do We Know Who We Are?

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Are we what we do?

A lot of Americans identify themselves by their work. It's often how we introduce ourselves or describe our friends and parents: "I'm a police officer." "I'm a spot-welder." "My dad was a druggist." "My mom was a teacher." "My wife is a pilot." "My friend is a firefighter." "I sell insurance."

Our work has been a kind of identity stamp, defining us as much as our last name or place of birth. As Studs Terkel wrote in his 1974 classic, Working, "Our jobs give us daily meaning as well as daily bread."

There are a few signs that this might be changing — the way assembly lines replaced so many craftsmen, and that labs and cubicle farms now supplant assembly lines.

Daron Acemoglu, the MIT professor who won the John Bates Clark medal for economics, explains that people typically change jobs in their first 10 years of work. They tend bar while studying to be a teacher, sell clothes or toys during a holiday season, try things, move around, and meet new people. Most soon find something they enjoy enough to try to make a career, and many start families. Commitment and stability — marriage and mortgages — become important.

But the economic crisis may have hastened a change he says was already under way: more people living with a series of short-term jobs, instead of lifetime occupations.

A study by the National Employment Law project released this week found that most of the millions of jobs lost since 2008 paid solid, middle-range wages; most of the new jobs filled have been in the low range.

People who used to make cars may now be stocking shelves; teachers may now be selling shoes — and stocking shelves. How does this change their sense of identity?

The report quotes Ellen Pinney of New Jersey, who lost a manager's job at an electronics company and now holds a series of temporary jobs in a beauty salon and in home health care. She has had to move in with her 86-year-old father and says, "I really can't bear it anymore. From every standpoint — my independence, my sense of purposefulness, my self-esteem, my life planning."

Professor Acemoglu says it is hard to cite a human occupation that might not be replaced in time by highly informed software. Technology has already arrived that could soon lead to driverless cars, pilotless planes and robotic surgeries. Some M.B.A.'s and M.D.'s may feel as vulnerable as millworkers.

So many Americans want not only jobs but steady, lasting work — that lifts them up, makes them proud, gives them a life and helps them look forward to a future.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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