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How the growing identity economy is reshaping the future of work

Esther Perel argues that leaders who treat employees as whole people—not just workers—can create workplaces that actually work.

How the growing identity economy is reshaping the future of work
[Illustration: FC]
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It was almost a decade ago now that I noticed a shift in what my psychotherapy patients, particularly those working in corporate jobs, wanted to discuss. They still mostly wanted to talk about subjects in my areas of expertise—love, intimacy, infidelity, and communication—but the context had expanded. Words such as trust, boundaries, and betrayal had long been reserved for sessions about a patient’s relationship to self, spouse, family, or friend.

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Now, that seemed to be expanding to include colleagues, cofounders, managers, and employees. Let me be clear: Patients had always spoken about various squabbles at work. But they were beginning to articulate new tensions, not just between themselves and others . . . but within themselves. Did their workplace care about their growth? Did loyalty go both ways? Does the inclusion mandate make me feel included? And, most importantly, did they want to make money or did they want to make meaning? Could they do both where they were—or anywhere else, for that matter?

[Illustration: FC]
I soon observed—mostly through invitations to speak at tech and HR companies—that a parallel revolution was taking place in workplaces across the country. Just as corporate jargon such as ROI and “hedging one’s bets” began to enter my therapy office, mental health buzzwords began to enter theirs. Now, in 2021 in corporate America, we talk about psychological safety in the same conversation as quarterly sales. The annual town hall covers the people, product, and profits, as well as the company’s ongoing mission to change the world. Without that crucial last piece, how else will employees know that their work matters or that they are meant to be exactly where they are? The future of work is about coming up with new, actionable ways to answer that question—and that question is fundamentally about the role of identity and relationships in the workplace.

In corporate America, people no longer work just to put food on the table. In addition to funding basic needs, they work with a vision of self-fulfillment, purpose, and growth. They expect their jobs to foster identity, meaning, and belonging—existential needs that used to be met in the realm of religious and traditional structures. This is precisely why many people who lost their jobs over the last year didn’t just experience it as a loss of income and security, but also as a loss of self. What we do is often conflated with who we are. This year showed us how much work is a core part of identity. But this past year also revealed more broadly how much identity has always been a core part of the American work experience—how race, ethnicity, gender, and class contribute to who “belongs,” “deserves,” or advances. The future of work recognizes that a corporation’s mission to “change the world” means nothing if leadership is not willing to change the workplace first.

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[Illustration: FC]
Over the next few years, every aspect of relational dynamics will be under a microscope. To retain talented employees, companies will need to provide growth opportunities and structures that help colleagues reconcile a series of seemingly conflicting needs: money and meaning, autonomy and belonging, flexibility and stability. My podcast How’s Work? lives at the nexus of these dualities, some of which tend to be self-evident for younger generations and often very challenging for their managers.

People want a place where they can grow and develop personally while also feeling that they belong to a community. They want to be able to be anywhere but belong somewhere. They want their managers to accommodate the facts of life. Parenting, caregiving, illness, and loss may all affect a person’s temperament or schedule. And when breaking news is about to announce an important verdict while we’re in a meeting, they want leaders to acknowledge that large societal events have a direct line to our momentary capacity to focus and be productive.

For companies, this means training managers in relational health. The leaders whose questions appropriately reflect a view of their employee as a whole person—what are your goals? How can I help you accomplish them? What makes working here hard?—will create a future of work that actually works. Just talk is not enough, though (it never has been). These conversations need to be regular, and the outcomes must be backed up with real action—money, career tracking, promotions, equity, and lasting, impactful relationships. Employee engagement and commitment will be up for negotiation everywhere, and it will be up to companies to foster an environment where employees want to stay and grow.

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[Illustration: FC]
The challenge for employees will be staying long enough to experience it. People used to leave marriage because they weren’t happy; now they leave because they could be happier. The same shift is happening in corporate America. This means that many of the same questions I ask about relationships can be applied to the future of work. When I advise companies, I often ask if relational intelligence is a soft skill or a hard skill among staff. In response, I often hear “What’s that?”

It’s an understandable answer. Relational Intelligence is about how we connect to others, how we build trust, overcome betrayal, and engage or avoid conflict. It’s the inner stories, past experiences, and corporate cultures that determine how we communicate to elicit curiosity and collaboration. Unlike performance and productivity, relationships are much harder to measure, sustain, and repair. And when conflict arises, it’s easy to throw our hands up in the air and relegate relational intelligence to the realm of the personal rather than the professional.

But what is personal has become professional. We’re at the beginning of a long arc in which identity is valued as much as, if not more than, its sister-term “brand.” The companies and employees that succeed will likely be the ones that recognize that authenticity, trust, empathy, engagement, and transparency are more than business buzzwords. They are the qualities that create the meaningful and transformative experience around which the modern workplace will be organized.

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Esther Perel is a therapist, speaker, author, and host of the podcasts How’s Work? and Where Should We Begin?

How Healthy Is the Future of Work? is an essay series featuring people working at the cutting edge of their fields sharing how emerging trends will affect the health of our country’s workers and workplaces in the future.

The series is curated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors’ views are their own.