What’s in a name? Men, work and occupational identity

According to recent news reports, the number of people in the UK who have side jobs is on the rise. A recent poll of Scottish workers found that 24% had more than one job, while data released by the Office of National Statistics suggests that nearly 1.2 million people in the UK have second jobs.[i] While this trend reflects the failure of wage rates to support basic living costs and the increasing challenge of finding full-time work, it also poses a challenge for working identity. If we work two jobs, which occupational title do we choose? To what extent do our job titles define our social status, and to what extent does an occupational title describe what we actually spend our time doing?


While taking on a second job seems to point to a crisis today, the one-career/one-job model is relatively recent in historical terms. Early modernists have been debating by-employments for some time: how to measure them; how prevalent they were; the relationship between occupational titles and the work that people did.[ii]

Gender seems central to understanding by-employments and occupational identity. In the case of women’s work, it has been. Previous studies highlight the complexities of accounting for work and defining female occupational identity. Tim Reinke-Williams and others emphasize the need to define work in ways that include paid and unpaid (but essential) labour, including housewifery, reproduction and childcare. Maria Agren’s Gender and Work Project adopts a verb-oriented approach, where work is defined as the ‘use of time with the goal of making a living’.[iii] Other studies explore the relationship between work and identity, suggesting that women fashioned positive self-identities by drawing on notions of industry, honest labour and business as well as their domestic roles.


For all of the attention to the working lives and experiences of women, we know remarkably little about men’s work, and there is room for a more nuanced understanding of the gendered nature of men’s occupational identities. We often assume a relationship between men, work and the public sphere. Considering eighteenth-century Edinburgh as a case study, it is easy to assume that male identities were definitively work-oriented. More occupational titles existed for men than for women. In legal records, most men claimed an occupational title, while most women were designated according to their marital status as daughter, wife or widow. Furthermore, local legislation sought to actively restrict women from some spheres of independent economic participation, while men occupied assumed places within market spheres.[iv]


The apparent primacy of work to male identities can be deceptive. First, the occupational titles that men claimed might only give us a limited understanding of their work. Some occupational titles, such as ‘labourer’ or ‘tenant’, give us only a vague idea of what a person did, and could encompass a whole range of activities. Complicating the titles that they claimed, records of debt reveal men buying, selling and contracting debts for goods and services wholly unrelated to their occupational titles. For example, in 1770, the tailor John Young contracted a debt for medications amounting to eight dozen boxes of pills, a quantity far exceeding what might have been purchased his own consumption.[v] Though designated a tailor, Young, or someone in his household, was clearly involved in retailing.


These examples provide only impressionistic accounts of the possible differences between work and occupational title, whereas more comprehensive studies debate the prevalence and economic importance of by-employments. There is more to say, however, about issues of gender and identity within these assessments of work. If an occupational title described what a man did usually, sometimes or rarely, what did that title mean in terms of reputation? An occupational title, it seems, was a source of status. However, contemporaries were attuned to possible discrepancies between what men called themselves and what they actually did. In cases when financial failure caused men to take on second employments, they might be challenged in claiming their previous occupational titles. For example, James Thom, a vintner in Leith reduced to ‘poor circumstances’ was given a job as a tax collector (the type of role often reserved by trade incorporations for members fallen upon hard times). A case of defamation that reached the courts in 1741 shows how when Thom approached the merchant Thomas Pillans as an equal, Pillans refused to recognise his formed occupational title and status, claiming that he did not know Pillans and ‘you are but weak’ and ‘get you gone’.[vi] In this case, Pillans refused to interact with Thom according to a claimed occupational title. The work that he actually did was more important, and clearly much is obscured by the occupational title claimed in the legal and administrative records.


Not only could the status associated with occupational titles be disputed, but occupation seemed to make up only one aspect of male reputation. My previous work on male credit, drawing on defamation records, suggests that while occupation and notions of honest work were central to constructions of reputation, these were not the only sources of male identity. Domestic roles, the success with which men served as husbands, sons and fathers, and sexual reputation, were also important.


Men’s work and male occupational identity in the eighteenth century was complex and nuanced. It deserves the same kind of detailed analysis as women’s work.



Tawny Paul is a lecturer in early modern history at Northumbria University. Her work addresses themes of credit, debt and masculinity. She is currently working on a monograph on the lower middling sort in eighteenth-century Britain, as well as a project on the British debtors’ prison.



[i] The rise of the second job’, Guardian, 20 April, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/money/2012/apr/20/rise-of-second-job; Office of National Statistics, ‘UK Labour Market, February, 2015’. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_393554.pdf.

[ii][ii] See for example Mark Overton et al, Production and consumption in English Households (2004). For a recent argument against the prevalence of by-employments, see Leigh Shaw-Taylor and Sebastian Keibek, ‘Early modern rural by-employments: a re-examination of the probate inventory evidence’, Agricultural History Review 61:2 (2013), 244-181.

[iii] Rosemarie Fiebranz, Erik Lindberg, Jonas Lindström, Maria Ågren, ‘Making Verbs Count. The research project “Gender and Work” and its methodology’, Scandinavian Economic History Review 59:3 (2011).

[iv] Extracts form the records of the burgh of Edinburgh, 1701-1718. Ed Helen Armet, 1967.

[v] Edinburgh City Archives, Bailie Court Processes, 1770, Box 144.

[vi] National Records of Scotland, Consistory Court Processes, CC8/6/296.


4 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Men, work and occupational identity

  1. “For all of the attention to the working lives and experiences of women, we know remarkably little about men’s work, and there is room for a more nuanced understanding of the gendered nature of men’s occupational identities.” I couldn’t agree more, Tawney. It seems like there has been a great burst of long-overdue scholarship on women’s work going on right now, and we’ve had plenty of publications on specific types of men’s work, but we still need to know much more about how ideas about labour and occupation influenced men’s identity and sense of manhood. I’m really pleased to hear that your research is partly addressing that, even if it finds that these facets of men’s identity were not as important as we might first assume.


  2. Thanks Brodie! I hope that none of what I’ve said seems to ignore or discredit the recent focus on women’s work, which has made great strides. We should seek to draw upon some of the insights developed around women’s work as we think about male labouring identities. I reckon that occupation and labour will continue to be central, but we need to be mindful about making assumptions.


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