How does anxiety shape older workers’ identities?

How does anxiety shape older workers’ identities?

A recent Tavistock Institute presentation explored how anxiety can shape stereotypes and identities at work.


18 May 2010

A recent Tavistock Institute presentation explored how anxiety can shape stereotypes and identities at work.

A recent presentation was given by one of our staff, David Drabble, at the British Sociological Association annual conference at Glasgow Caledonian University on identity at work.

Identity at work is usually focused on the idea of being identified by others, for example, by being stereotyped. This presentation argued first that identity is better understood as a process rather than an unchanging attribute. It’s useful to think of this process as being ‘identity work’ where people are engaged in forming, repairing, maintaining, strengthening or revising the ideas which produce a sense of self.

Second, the presentation introduces the factor of anxiety into the identity debate. For older workers, when they perceive that they have been labelled ‘old’ by others they begin to define themselves as ‘old’ and become susceptible to identity degradation, where prior identities are taken from the workers without their permission, emphasising a lack of power.

This identity degradation produces a feeling of anxiety which can increase the identity work process; workers question their identities more when they feel anxious. In addition, the way these anxieties are defended against and contained at work will in turn impact upon the individual’s self identity.

The multifaceted aspects of identity formation at work are explored in this article using data from an evaluation of the involvement and motivation of older staff at an international public sector organisation undertaken by the Tavistock Institute. Although mixed methods were used, this presentation focused on how the older workers reported their anxieties.

The presentation concludes:

  • The identity work that older workers underwent was often linked to anxieties around ageing, often in reaction to being treated as ‘obsolete’.
  • The cases clearly demonstrate tension between fantasy and reality, reflecting the construction that people have placed on their experiences and the impact of that on identity.
  • Some workers were able to successfully defend against these anxieties by upgrading their skills and their self identities.
  • Others continued to feel mounting, persecutory anxieties and were left feeling sidetracked. This led to great anxiety and paranoia, impacting adversely on their self-identity.

For a copy of the presentation, download the PDF to the right.

For a copy of the conference paper please email David Drabble at ddrabble@tavinstitute.org

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