Research Findings

Polyoccupationalism: The unexplored world of workers’ occupational identities.

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April 10, 2024

Occupations are a key source of identity in modern social life. But what exactly do contemporary occupational identities look like? In the heyday of Western industrialization, sociologist Émile Durkheim conceived of occupations as cohesive social groupings, or “small classes,” whose rooting in the division of labor meant that they provided workers with exclusive and powerful identities – as miners, nurses, or professors. In recent decades, however, the rise of postindustrial forms of work has transformed the Durkheimian landscape. As employment becomes more contingent and labor is increasingly project-based, workers’ ties to their jobs are not as strong as they used to be. It is unclear, however, how this shift away from the industrial regime has transformed occupational identities. How do workers identify with occupations in the postindustrial era?

Existing answers to this question tend to subside into two extreme positions. For some, contemporary societies are “post-occupational societies” wherein occupations are no longer as relevant to people’s self-identification: how might you develop a strong occupational identity when you juggle multiple jobs and frequently change employers? For others, though, the postindustrial economy has ushered in an “occupationalization” and “Durkheimianization” of the labor force: with the dissolution of workers’ exclusive and durable ties to their employer organizations, workers’ occupational communities are the only stable source of identity they are left to hold on to.

In recent research published in the American Sociological Review, we explore a third possibility: that under postindustrial forms of work and work organization, workers have an increased tendency to simultaneously identify with multiple occupations – a phenomenon we describe as “polyoccupationalism.” Our study finds evidence for polyoccupationalism, demonstrates its correlation with key elements of postindustrial work, and shows how it takes different forms at the top and at the bottom of the occupational prestige hierarchy.


Measuring polyoccupationalism is no easy task. Because the industrial vision of occupational identity is ingrained in most occupational surveys, they ask respondents to identify with a single occupation. These single-entry items simply preclude the expression of polyoccupational identities.

We therefore take advantage of a large, recently fielded survey of graduates from all arts and arts administration programs in the United States, called the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). When SNAAP respondents were asked to report their occupational identity, they could pick as many items as they wished from a list of eighteen detailed occupations, ranging from architect to graphic designer or arts educator (see figure 1). Those selecting more than one occupation were further probed for the one they spent most of their working time in – what we refer to as their primary occupation.

Our analyses focus on the responses of over 14,000 creative workers. Among these, the average worker identified with 1.7 occupations, and 44% of respondents reported identifying with more that one occupation. Although these figures varied across primary occupations (figure 1), they demonstrate that, at least as far as the creative workforce is concerned, polyoccupationalism is real and widespread if one knows how to look.

Figure 1. Patterns of occupational identification across primary occupations in the SNAAP sample (n = 14,774)

Polyoccupationalism and postindustrial work

Polyoccupationalism, as one’s identification with multiple occupations, is analytically distinct from multiple jobholding. In fact, one may hold multiple jobs in the same occupational area, as would a nurse working shifts at different hospitals, and still maintain a single-occupational identity as a nurse. Nonetheless, we predict that postindustrial forms of employment that are often associated with multiple jobholding, such as contract and gig work, make workers more likely to take jobs farther from their occupational “homes,” and therefore increase their likelihood of developing multiple occupational identities. This prediction is borne out by the empirical evidence in our sample.

Furthermore, we theorize that workers can develop polyoccupational identities while working in a single job. We show that this happens when their work is more project-based, leading them to pick up new skills “for the sake of the project” (some graphic design for an architect, some acting for a dancer) in ways that increase the “occupational content” of their job.

Hence, and while we show that polyoccupationalism is also tied to other factors such as workers’ gender and education, we establish a clear link between workers’ development of a polyoccupational identity and two of the most distinctively postindustrial features of their work: namely its contract- and project-based character.

Stretching expertise and status: forms of polyoccupationalism across the occupational hierarchy

We finally show that polyoccupationalism takes different forms at the top and at the bottom of the occupational status hierarchy. Figure 2 classically presents the occupational structure as two-dimensional: the closer occupations are on the vertical axis, the more alike they are in social status; the closer they are on the horizontal axis, the more typical tasks they share (for example, actors and dancers are closer than actors and interior designers).

Figure 2. Polyoccupationalism stretches expertise at the top of the occupational hierarchy, and status at its bottom

Focusing on polyoccupationalists – respondents who identified with more than one occupation –, we find that those whose primary occupation placed them lower down in the occupational hierarchy, such as craft artists or photographers, typically identified with other occupations that were close in terms of the tasks they involved, but distant on the status axis. This is what we refer to as “status-stretching” polyoccupationalism. By contrast, polyoccupationalists whose primary occupation placed them higher up on the occupational status scale, such as architects, were more likely to identify with other occupations involving very different tasks from their primary one, but remaining in the same status tier. In other words, these polyoccupational workers were “expertise stretchers” (figure 2).  

These patterns are easily accommodated by status management theories: the incumbents of lower positions in status hierarchies often strive to enhance their status, while the incumbents of higher positions strive to maintain theirs by insulating themselves from lower-status markers. An important implication of our findings, though, is that polyoccupationalism has a tendency to blur the occupational status hierarchy at its bottom, as status-stretching “hustlers” mix occupations of unequal statuses in their occupational identities. At the same time, polyoccupationalism also cements the occupational hierarchy at the top, where expertise stretching by polyoccupational “entrepreneurs” is likely to further aggrandize the standing of already prestigious occupations.

Our discovery and theorizing of polyoccupationalism opens up multiple avenues for further research. In particular, our work does not touch on the subjective experience of those embracing multiple occupational identities, nor does it go beyond speculating about how polyoccupationalism might alter observers’ perceptions of the occupational structure. Polyoccupationalism should also be of interest to those studying the dynamics of occupational groups and classifications, as well as to those thinking about occupational identities in postindustrial societies. More immediately, our documentation of polyoccupationalism should prompt adoption of tools that measure it systematically , such as multiple-entry, occupational self-identification survey items one could model on those used to measure multiple ethnic or racial identities.


Léonie Hénaut is Associate Professor of Sociology at CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research, and at Sciences-Po Paris. She studies work, occupations, and organizations in the cultural and healthcare industries, with a focus on occupational dynamics and organizational change.

Jennifer C. Lena is Associate Professor of Arts Administration and Sociology at Columbia University. She is the author of Banding Together and Entitled (both Princeton University Press) and co-author of Measuring Culture (Columbia University Press).

Fabien Accominotti is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written widely on the formation and demise of status hierarchies and their role in sustaining inequality in society.

Read More

Hénaut, Léonie, Jennifer C. Lena, and Fabien Accominotti. 2023. “Polyoccupationalism: Expertise Stretch and Status Stretch in the Postindustrial Era.” American Sociological Review 88(5): 872-900.