An exploration of obstacles to identity play during unemployment

Julia Mühlhaus*, Onno Bouwmeester, Svetlana N. Khapova

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Purpose: This study seeks to explore the key themes in identity play during unemployment and the potential obstacles faced by unemployed individuals. Design/methodology/approach: This qualitative study is based on 23 interviews with unemployed individuals in Germany. Findings: The authors identify three obstacles to identity play during unemployment: a lack of psychological safety to explore possible selves, a lack of opportunity to try out possible selves and a lack of social validation for possible selves. Several interviewees highlight the impact of social context, creating an absence of institutional support and a limited identity “playspace.” As such, the authors illustrate that when faced with these obstacles, the unemployed individuals of this study predominantly focus on identity work instead of identity play. Only a few interviewees seem to engage in and sustain identity play. The authors propose that the elaborate nature of their possible selves and their focus on future opportunities may overshadow the present self and immediate obstacles. Originality/value: The authors argue that identity play is not readily available to all individuals in all situations. Instead, they suggest that some psychologically and socially threatening contexts such as unemployment are characterized by obstacles that constrain individuals' identity play and prevent the adoption of new work identities. Hence, the authors call for a more balanced and localized understanding of identity play.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)333-347
Number of pages15
JournalCareer Development International
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, Julia Mühlhaus, Onno Bouwmeester and Svetlana N. Khapova.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Identity play
  • Identity threat
  • Identity work
  • Unemployment


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