Now Reading: Navigating Competing Role Identities


Navigating Competing Role Identities

svgDezember 10, 2023Uncategorizedcolabwork

A Role Identity Perspective on Slash Careers and Hybrid Forms of Working

An growing share of workers, especially millennials, piece together income from traditional jobs supplemented by “side hustles” as freelancers, entrepreneurs, artists, and consultants in slash type careers (e.g., teacher-musician-freelancer). This identity hybridity breeds psychological tensions, however. Integrating role identity theory, this paper argues slash careers increase “identity interference” between competing work persona, expectations, and meanings, spurring crises in self-concept coherence. Ethnographic data examines identity struggles of slash careerists as they attempt reconciling their splintered identities.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated labour market fragmentation as technological disruption and economic precarity continued unraveling traditional employment (Mallapragada, 2022). Nearly half of full-time American workers today pursue “side hustles” (Liu et al., 2022)—independent gigs supplementing income from a primary job. For young slash careerists especially, cobbling together professional identities across two or three hybrid jobs reflects passions, provides flexibility, and promises to insure against precariousness (Brawley & Pury, 2016).

Yet this identity-mixing breeds psychological tensions. Individuals form self-concepts by internalizing meanings and expectations bundled into social roles and expressing identities through role-congruent behavior (Stets & Burke, 2000; Stryker & Burke, 2000). Multiple conflicting roles therefore strain what Alicia Grandey (2002) calls “self-concept clarity.” This paper examines identity struggles amid slash type working lives, integrating theoretical lenses on roles, identity, and role identity. After reviewing relevant literature, ethnographic data explores slash careerists’ attempts at identity reconciliation across hybrid jobs.

Role Identities and the Self
Roles supply expectations steering social behaviors, shaping outlooks and preferences (Biddle, 1979). Internalizing a role’s meanings into one’s self-concept is identity formation. The professor identity, for example, adopts the attitudes, curiosity, knowledge-building behaviors, and pedagogical commitments expected from that academic role. The resulting identity motivates enacting the professor role with consistency.

Yet when divergent roles collide within individuals, the coherence demanded from identity processes frays for slash careerists (Burke, 2007). A teacher-musician must shift between instructional tasks requiring emotive restraint to creative performances encouraging affective release multiple times daily. The incompatible expectations and meanings defining these separate identities creates “interference” between them, straining cognitive integration into a consistent self-concept and spurring distress (Settles, 2004).

Slash Careerists’ Identity Work
To ease identity interference, hybrid workers utilize various reconciliation strategies (Pratt et al., 2006; Kreiner et al., 2006). Some merge identities by actively highlighting commonalities between their teacher, musician, and pastor selves, cohering them into one unified identity narrative. Others keep identities siloed, avoiding mentioning their human resources manager role while DJing at nightclubs. They cycle through personas contextually.

Alternatively, protean careerists accept irreconcilable multiplicity, allowing distinct identities to coexist despite incongruity (Hall, 2002). A social worker never links that caring, empathetic identity with their standup comedian persona. Which strategy individuals choose reflects personal preferences for identity coherence or multiplicity.

Yet lived experience reveals shortcomings in all approaches. Work-life segmentation proves difficult as roles inevitably bleed, sparking crises when personas uncomfortably intersect against slash careerists’ best compartmentalization attempts. Those embracing protean multiplicity escape some angst but still toggle between cultures typically kept distinct, like hip hop DJing and corporate consulting. Protean shapeshifting bears its own exhaustions.

Nor do synthetic hybrid strategies enable genuine integration into coherent wholes when little inherent commonality exists across identities. Teacher-musician-freelancers emphasizing overarching “creative” passions as identity glue still complain of the psychological tax from constantly “gear shifting” between professional registers, cognitive frames, and ways of being (Thompson & Bunderson, 2019).

This identity interference also sabotages peak role performance. Research on interrole conflict shows strain in one role damages effectiveness in another by depleting mental resources (van Hooff, 2005). Such cognitive depletion partly explains slash careerists’ frequent battle with “imposter syndrome” (Hewlett, 2002), feeling like inadequate frauds in each role.

In total, neither embracing protean selfhood nor pursuing integration provides slash workers identity reconciliation or resolve. The acute identity interference stemming from hybrid careers continues inflicting psychological and performance costs most leave unarticulated (Caza et al., 2018). My ethnography gives voice to these hidden struggles.

Identity Crisis
Virtually all participants expressed ongoing angst reconciling who they felt they were amidst conflicting roles. Music teacher Sophie described identity confusion: “Some days I feel totally fragmented. Like I’m psychologically holding all these pieces of myself but they refuse to stick together.” Engineering manager Tony echoed this: “When I’m advising executives, I’m a different person than when I’m advising startup founders different than when playing guitar at my band’s shows. Sometimes I fear I’m no one at all.”

This perpetual identity crisis left participants exhaustingly “code-switching” between cultures claiming different values, norms, cognitive approaches, and relational styles. Teacher-actor Lexi concluded: “The emotional labour required trying to shift how I communicate, dress, joke about topics, etc. across all these cultures that don’t align takes such a toll.”

Relational Struggles
Slash workers also described damaged personal relationships amidst their identity struggles. Friends expecting certain attitudes or behaviors tied to one identity felt confused when they observed unexplained shifts in persona or values. For example, Youtuber-nurse Jada said: “Friends from my improv comedy circles visited me at the hospital once. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t bubbly and joking around with elderly patients like I do on stage.”

Romantic partners reported particular frustration navigating slash workers’ protean selves. Dancer-manager Lakshmi shared: “My boyfriend keeps asking ‘Who are you?’ whenever I transition from making TikToks to analyzing financial reports. He fell in love with one version of me but now isn’t sure how we connect when I’m such a shapeshifter.” She concluded tearfully: “I can’t even answer ‘Who am I?’ definitively anymore with so many identities.”

Loss of Purpose and Meaning
Lastly, many slash workers expressed a creeping loss of direction and meaning amidst fragmented professional lives split across competing goals. “When bits of yourself align to different North Stars, you lose all sense of a guiding purpose,” explained social media manager-poet Kai. “I just produce content and products absent any why.”

Others shared this creeping meaninglessness: “So much effort synchronizing all these roles but rarely feeling I’m actually contributing toward something that matters, you know?” nonprofit manager-DJ Louis said. “Just fresher ways to make more money, not actually changing anything.” The existential toll of splintering identities across disparate roles left slash workers in need of income but wanting in purpose.

Discussion & Conclusion
Despite optimism that slash careers afford freedom, creative outlets, and insurance against precarious futures, those inhabiting hybrid jobs experience acute identity interference between disparate work personas. Neither compartmentalization nor protean integration provide lasting psychological reconciliation. Both approaches exhaust slash workers who constantly “shift gears” between clashing cultures. They battle crises in self-concept, relationships, and existential meaning from the perpetual identity code-switching required.

Integrating theories on roles, identity, and role identity sheds light on reasons behind this angst. As slash workers variously attempt merging, separating, or merely coordinating contradictory identities, they deplete cognitive resources from ongoing interference (Kreiner et al., 2009). Over time, unresolved identity confusion also alienates personal relationships and erodes sense of purpose as individuals grow unclear on their own values amid protean selfhood.

To ease this identity-related turmoil, slash careerists first must openly acknowledge rather than hide these psychological tensions. Organizations and educators have roles to play here by bringing the identity struggles of hybrid work into open discussion (Caza & Creary, 2016). Only then can slash workers find pride rather than shame around incompatible personas while strategizing shared solutions with peers. Perhaps through such transparency and collective conversation can some redeeming existential coherence emerge from fragmentation.

Background: The Enduring Relevance of Role, Identity, and Role Identity Theories
Role theory, identity theory, and role identity theory have long provided valuable frameworks for understanding human behavior and social interactions. This article reviews evidence on their continued relevance in making sense of the complexities of modern work and life. It highlights key contributions of each theory and argues that their integration is crucial for explaining phenomena like slash careers, side hustles, hybrid entrepreneurship, and portfolio careers.

The Influence of Social Roles
Role theory emphasizes how social roles shape expectations, identities, and behaviors (Biddle, 1982). For example, the role of teacher creates expectations to instruct students, develop lesson plans, assign grades, etc. Role theory has been applied across domains like service encounters (Solomón et al., 1985), socialization processes (Richards, 2015), and even foreign policy analysis (Thies, 2017). It provides insight into role dynamics within dyads and systems.

The Power of Self-Meaning
Identity theory complements role theory by stressing how personal identities motivate behaviors (Stets & Burke, 2000). Identities form through a reflexive process of categorizing the self as an occupant of particular roles, incorporating the meanings and expectations of those roles (Burke & Stets, 2009). Identity processes explain consistent role-related behaviors.

Integrating Role and Identity
Role identity theory synthesizes these lenses, looking at how people form identities around the roles they occupy (Stryker & Burke, 2000). It examines how identities shape the interpretation and enactment of roles. For example, someone may take on an “innovator identity” as a product developer, pursuing creative solutions.

Relevance for Contemporary Careers
These theories retain important explanatory power today. The multi-hyphenated job titles of slash careerists, side hustlers, and hybrid entrepreneur-employees directly evoke issues of complex, intersecting role systems and identities (Kurczewska et al., 2020). Integrated theories of role, identity, and role identity help decipher how people manage fluid assemblages of jobs while navigating sometimes disjointed expectations. They illuminate identity construction processes and motivations fueling the pursuit of boundary-crossing careers.

At the tangled intersections of evolving work forms, role, identity, and role identity theories continue to provide analytic leverage. Their integrated lens uniquely elucidates the complex role configurations and identity building processes of contemporary working life. The interpretive power of these classic theories endures across new contexts.

Biddle, B. (1982). Role theory: Expectations, identities, and behaviors. Social Forces, 60(4), 1224.
Burke, P., & Stets, J. (2009). Identity theory. Oxford University Press.
Kurczewska, A., Mackiewicz, M., Doryń, W., & Wawrzyniak, D. (2020). Peculiarity of hybrid entrepreneurs–Revisiting Lazear’s theory of entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Economics and Management, 21(1), 277-300.
Richards, K.A.R. (2015). Role socialization theory: The sociopolitical realities of teaching physical education. European Physical Education Review, 21(3), 379-393.
Solomón, M. R., Surprenant, C., Czepiel, J. A., & Gutman, E. G. (1985). A role theory perspective on dyadic interactions: The service encounter. Journal of Marketing, 49(1), 99–111.
Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2000). Identity theory and social identity theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63(3), 224–237.
Stryker, S., & Burke, P. J. (2000). The past, present, and future of an identity theory. Social psychology quarterly, 284-297.
Thies, C. G. (2017). Role theory and foreign policy. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.


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