The Born Identity

It’s also a moment of sheer terror, wondering what on earth they’ve gotten themselves into.

I, on the other hand, am a little slow on the uptake. The real significance didn’t hit me at the moment my son was born. It came about 18 months later when I asked a simple question: What’s your name?

His response — “Mikey,” he said as he tapped his chest — hit me like a freight train. I was proud and happy for sure. But it was more than that. It came with the realization that my wife and I are raising a child — a child who one day will grow into an adult.

I’ve thought hard about why that hit differently than when I first held him. It comes down to identity.

While the baby is the main character in the scene, birth is really about the parents. Me aside, most parents realize from that moment forward that life will completely change. In a flash, you have a premonition of all the happiness and joy as well as the struggle and sweat that child will bring to your life. That insight is quickly cemented by how completely dependent newborns are on their parents.

So what hit me when my son said his name wasn’t the stunning revelation that I’m a slow learner. It was the realization that we are raising a miniature human being, not just a cute little baby. One day, probably coming much faster than I realize, he will be on his way to school, going on a date, sliding behind the wheel of a car, heading off to college, interviewing for his first job and maybe managing people and making decisions that affect their lives.

That moment when he said his name was not about us as parents. It was about him and all the people who will come in and out of his life. Knowing his name was the first clear sign of his developing identity — an identity shaped and influenced by us as parents but that will ultimately be his alone.

Which brings me to my point. Arguably, identity has never been more important or more at risk. In a talent-based economy, results are driven by smaller sets of high-performing people. People who create new products and innovative ideas — and the companies that employ them — stand to gain the most. Often, those people are idiosyncratic; their individuality and identity is what makes them so valuable.

At the same time, individual identity is at great risk. We are living through a workplace disruption the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution. Like that era, automation of work is playing a primary role. Except this time, machines aren’t replacing manual labor. Fueled by digitization and data, they are replacing mental labor. And it’s not just the economy that loses jobs. Individuals get handed the pink slip.

According to a recent study from researchers at Oxford University, nearly half of jobs could be automated within the next two decades, including such human-driven work as accounting and medical diagnosis. MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson call the period we’re entering “The Second Machine Age,” and have made that the subject and title of their new book.

As we digitize, workers are increasingly segmented, categorized and deconstructed into their component parts. We manage not necessarily in terms of individuals but job roles, skills, competencies and performance. We track headcounts and costs. Individual identity floats in an ocean of digital data often only anchored to an employee number or metatag in a corporate database.

That shift comes with talent management upsides. Databases contain a wealth of performance results, survey responses and network connections, and software systems give us the ability to collect, manipulate, analyze and synthesize that information in useful new ways. But it can lead to impersonalization in ways that lead to disenchantment, especially for those idiosyncratic high performers.

Each of us comes to work with our own identity, filled with a personal history and shaped by our own motivations, ambitions and goals. At one point, we all were — and still are — someone’s baby.
For talent management, it pays to take a moment to remember that.