In an earlier article, The Work/Identity Problem, I explored how when people affix their personal identities to their job title some deleterious things can happen. People can run the risk of basing their self-esteem on whether they keep the same job, it can build inflexibility in finding good work, it can hinder a person’s ability to generate revenue and may encourage corruption. I also suggested that job-based identities also had bad social effects in that it drives politicians and voters to protect jobs at unseemly costs, obsess over employment, and make work forces inelastic. I then suggested that a personal identity should be formed from lots of personal, internal sources such as interests, virtues and behavior.

For many people, college is the beginning of forming an identity based on external labels, both from the outset of declaring a major and in the reinforcement (i.e., indoctrination) that it is an occupation that defines who a person is.

This phenomena begins to form in a strikingly short moment. In high school, kids do not generally have an occupational identity. They may have a social type identity (e.g., jock, nerd, prep etc.,) based more on who their friends are. Once college is chosen the first important question is “what is your major?” This is first used to determine the course of study, but almost always has an occupational indication associated with it. For example, if someone declares to be an education major, we would assume they are on the path to being a professional educator of some sort.

This major becomes a significant identifier for the student going forward. Just as guests at an adult cocktail party ask “what do you do for a living?”, guests at the college kegger are asked “what is your major?” A constant reinforcement is put into place with the classes and teachers the student interacts with and the people they meet in their social circles, which are often part of the same college departments.

The pervasiveness of this phenomena probably helps scare kids into going to college in the first place. Besides the institutional endorsements for college, kids might be afraid that they will be without the required identities that a collage major and the occupation it implies creates. An absence of this can create huge amounts of social disdain amongst family and peers as the young person seems directionless, careless and, well, like a nobody.

This college/identity problem presents several challenges:

  • It is a blockade for smart young people who entertain the thought that they can thrive without college
  • It creates a powerful on-ramp for all of the problems the job/identity problem has
  • It can stunt a young person’s ability to stretch their minds and capabilities into new areas and make them less effective at being well rounded, insightful adults
  • With identity and self esteem so tied to a major, any failure or misguided choices in fulfilling the major can lead to depression or other feelings of uneasiness (e.g., shame, embarrassment, hopelessness)


I believe it would be healthier for everybody if identities were created by reflecting on what we think, what we enjoy, how we behave, the people we associate with, our societal worldview, or our belief system.   It may include the state of our families or friends and the people who love us and the people we love. Or the things we spend our time on. And, yes, to some degree what we studied, if at all, at college.

This would go great distances in alleviating the work/identity problem and empower more people with more control over how they think and act within their lives.