The actor-waiter,” who serves meals to support their acting career, is a stock character in the American work landscape. Newspapers warn us that flex-work,” portfolio careers,” multi-hyphenates” and slash workers” are spreading to other industries, beyond the creative sector. But this common-sense understanding that the nature of work has changed betrays the weakness of the research on which it relies. Labor market scholars struggle to keep pace with changing job titles, the rise and fall of industries, and rapid technological change that requires most working people to constantly learn new skills. They are still using out-of-date surveys that ask us to report only one occupational identity — one self at work. The SNAAP survey, however, offers us an opportunity to break out of that single-entry bind and explore whether creative workers identify with two or more occupations as a result of their jobs.

In a recent article published in the American Sociological Review, Léonie Hénaut (CNRS/SciencesPo), Jennifer C. Lena (Columbia University, Teachers College), and Fabien Accominotti (University of Wisconsin-Madison) theorize and study the tendency of workers to identify with multiple occupations at the same time, a phenomenon they called polyoccupationalism.” They used the 2015 – 2017 SNAAP data to examine the determinants and patterns of occupational identification among arts and arts-related workers. They took advantage of a unique feature of the survey, which is that it has multiple-entry occupational questions: respondents were allowed to select in a list of 43 items all that apply” to the question asking them to indicate those occupations in which [they] currently work[ed].” Furthermore, the SNAAP survey also asked respondents who reported more than one occupation to indicate the occupation in which [they spent] the majority of [their] work time.” As a result, Hénaut et al. used information on all the occupation(s) respondents selected among 18 detailed creative occupations. These occupations were not only in the realm of fine and performing arts, but also ranged from architect to interior designer to arts educator. These responses were then combined with O*NET data on the status of, and skills required by, each of those occupations. Their analysis of these data revealed there were a lot of creative workers who were polyoccupationalists.

Respondents (N=14,774) reported 1.7 occupations on average, and 44% reported two occupations or more, out of the list of 18. Interestingly, though, rates of polyoccupationalism varied greatly across primary occupations: there are many fewer polyoccupationalist architects than there are polyoccupationalist musicians. Additionally, their study showed that respondents who worked on contracts (as self-employed, independent, or freelance) were much more likely to be polyoccupationalists, compared to those who did not, establishing a clear link between postindustrial work features and identity. The status of primary occupation also plays a role in shaping polyoccupationalist identity: lower-status workers may be able to trade in on their task expertise to do the same work in higher status secondary occupations. Conversely, higher-status workers like architects may use distinct skills to join secondary, equivalently high-status occupational groups. The former group status-stretch,” while the latter expertise-stretch.” These two main findings — the association between polyoccupationalism and postindustrial work, and the different forms it takes across the occupational structure – have consequences that reach beyond the creative industries.

Overall, this study provides a new, comprehensive understanding of polyoccupationalism, a phenomenon that scholars were aware of but has never been investigated systematically due to a lack of data, and a dominant yet limited conceptualization of occupations as distinct and exclusive communities. This illustrates the continued need for more multiple-entry questions in occupational surveys, and more research on the process of occupational identification and the subjective experiences of those embracing multiple occupational identities. The more recently collected 2022 SNAAP data can further address these types of trends in polyoccupationalism and other nontraditional career paths for arts alumni in the future.

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

SNAAP brief graph

This DataBrief was prepared by Léonie Hénaut, Jennifer C. Lena, and Fabien Accominotti.

Full article citation:
Hénaut, L., Lena, J. C., & Accominotti, F. (2023). Polyoccupationalism: Expertise Stretch and Status Stretch in the Postindustrial Era. American Sociological Review, 88(5), 872- 900.