In this article we investigate the generative causes of variation in the professional identity of new teachers. Building on previous work that has shown a link between professional identity and socio-political context, we argue that the context experienced in late adolescence and early adulthood is particularly significant in shaping how beginning teachers think of themselves as teachers. This finding suggests that the linear response to neoliberal education reform described in much of the critical literature may be too simple to account for the range of ways teachers interact with the system. There is, therefore, a need for greater diversity in research approaches to work with the complexity of social systems in and around schools. To support this call for methodological diversity, we borrow the life story model of identity as a theoretical framework and use a computer-assisted phenomenographic analysis technique to find new ways into the research data.