Ilana Gershon on her new book, Down and Out in the New Economy

Down and Out in the New Economy

Interview by Matt Tomlinson

The topics your book takes on are complexly intertwined: how people are meant to become their own brands, how patterns of hiring and quitting are changing, and the role of new media ideologies and ecologies. One of the points that emerges in your book is that people who try to connect these strands are themselves often confused, perplexed, and frustrated by the systems and processes. So can you distil your argument into a short summary—the elevator talk or, as this case might be, the elevator blog?

Pithy summaries are indeed the goal of so many of the job-seeking performances I studied, it seems only fair that I attempt to reduce my argument down to a handful of sentences.  My book is an attempt to make the notion of a neoliberal self as rigorous as possible by using historical comparison with earlier forms of capitalism.  So I suggest that Fordist work structures relied on the metaphor that one owns oneself as though one was property.  This means that the employment contract is a moment in which you rent yourself out to an employer for a certain period of time, and get yourself back, so to speak, at the end of the day.   Many union battles were fought over how long you should rent yourself out (the 40-hour work week), or other practical conundrums created by extending this metaphor of self-as-property.  But since Reagan and Thatcher, the metaphor has changed, and under neoliberal capitalism, people imagine that they own their selves as though they are businesses – bundles of skills, assets, experiences, qualities, and relationships that must be consciously managed and continually enhanced.  The employment contract becomes metaphorically a business-to-business contract in which you as a business are providing temporary solutions to your employer’s market-specific problems.  The book is about how the hiring ritual and various aspects of workplaces have changed in response to this shift in metaphor.

 

You describe how your students’ questions about how they should go about getting jobs led you to write the book. Can you say more about this, and what practical critical tools you see linguistic anthropology offering to students and job-seekers?

I am so glad that you asked, because the more I studied what hiring actually involves, the more I realized that linguistic and media anthropologists teach very helpful analytical tools for being a competent job candidate.  And I also think that we could all be much more direct when faced with the question “How will this major help me get a job?” about all the ways that an anthropology degree is truly helpful preparation for specific tasks involved in looking for a job.

For example, all the workshops that I attended were openly guides for how to master a certain genre.   The instructors were teaching how to understand the way information should be presented on the page to anticipate a certain kind of reader – often an impatient one who wants clear signals that the applicant fits certain criteria, and with their own styles for interpretation.   These are readers who are also reading with other people’s assessments in mind, who are anticipating having to show a resume to someone else in their workplace with their own techniques for interpreting a genre.  And while the workshops tend to focus on one genre alone, the job seeker is supposed to be competent at a range of genres, all of which are supposed to interconnect and tell a persuasive narrative about the applicant.  This is precisely what students learn in our courses.  You learn how to become competent at new genres.  You learn how to anticipate the different ways people might interpret your own texts, at the same time that you are learning a range of different techniques for interpreting a text.  You often learn the relationships between a textual genre and a performance genre.  And, as importantly, you learn how to be persuasive about your own interpretations of a text, a skill that will come in handy when our students have to discuss with their future co-workers who they want to hire.

 

 Your book is written in an appealingly informal tone, but there are moments when the immense anxiety and frustration of job seekers is apparent. Was the fieldwork emotionally challenging at times? Were there folks for whom you felt you needed to intervene sympathetically in some way?

Honestly, this was the most depressing fieldwork I have ever done.   And this is proven to me all over again when I give talks.  When I talk about my previous research on how people use new media to break up with each other, I often feel like a stand-up comedian.  The stories and my informants’ take on things are just so funny.   And now, when I give a talk about hiring, people in the audience keep telling me that they feel deeply depressed after I am done.

One of the reasons it was so painful is that the white collar workers I interviewed seemed to accept the neoliberal advice that they were surrounded by. At the end of an interview, I would sometimes mention that I was a bit skeptical about some aspect, say the requirement to create a personal brand.  And invariably, the person I was interviewing would defend the advice.   By contrast, last summer, I spent a month interviewing homeless people about how they looked for jobs.  It was much more enjoyable fieldwork because so many of the people I interviewed had a healthy skepticism about the systems they were trying to navigate.

It was also hard because I had no concrete way to intervene for the people I was interviewing in the moment, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And offering yet more advice didn’t seem like a satisfying way to go.  After all, part of the trap that job-seekers face is not only that they are surrounded by advice, some of it good and some of it crappy, but almost all of it must be said at a level of generality that isn’t helpful enough for getting a job in a complex and specific workplace.  In the end, I decided that maybe the best I could do was point out in my book the problems with standardized advice as clearly as possible.  This might help job-seekers realize they also might want to do thoughtful research about any workplace they want to enter, research (to continue my point in the previous question) that resembles ethnographic explorations of how decisions are made in a specific organization.

 

For linguistic anthropologists this book will resonate strongly with your previous book The Breakup 2.0. In fact, they would be great to assign as a pair to students. But I wanted you to think of this new book in terms of your work on Samoan migrants, No Family Is an Island. I want to go out on a limb here. In No Family Is an Island, you make it clear that government bureaucrats who see their systems as acultural put Samoans in the position of “being cultural,” and making culture something to be managed in particular ways. In this new book, you mention how companies are seen to have cultures, but individuals have some leeway—true, they need to have a cultural makeup that fits the company’s own, but they’re also free to craft selves as brands and decide what kind of individual culture they have, if you will. So to draw all this out: Samoan migrants are forced to be culture-bearers, whereas American job-seekers need to be culture-designers. Is this a fair comparison?

For me, this is a very unexpected comparison, but let me see if I can work with it.   Why unexpected? In my research on hiring, I was constantly baffled by what people meant when they were talking to me about company culture and making sure that those they hired were a good cultural fit.   It often sounded to me like “not a cultural fit” was a politic way to reject a job candidate you didn’t like for whatever reason, but seemed perfectly acceptable on paper.  And I never came across anyone who thought they were creating a culture of one, job-seekers and employers both understood culture to involve a group of people interacting together.

That said, I think you are pointing to a fascinating distinction in the way that culture as a classification functions on the ground when people use the concept explicitly.  In my earlier work on Samoan migrants, culture tended to refer only to one thin slice of what anthropologists mean when they talk about culture – ritual exchanges, kinship obligations, and politeness norms.  None of these were being referred to when U.S. white collar workers were talking about company culture.  Instead, they seemed, as far as I could tell, to be referring to the specific interactional practices that linguistic anthropologists study – how do you handle conflict, or manage small talk – which was then translated into Values that company employees were supposed to uphold.  No one ever clearly spelled out the link between values such as Amazon’s “bias for action” and “think big” and how employees were supposed to behave in particular situations.  This was the tacit cultural knowledge everyone in Amazon were supposed to know — how to link these values to everyday practice.  And I suppose employees could say retroactively that the people who didn’t know how to enact this tacit link were not a good “cultural fit.”  But honestly, from my analytical perspective, moving from a job at Goldman Sachs to a job at Amazon was not switching cultures in any meaningful anthropological sense.  Both Samoan migrants and U.S. white collar workers were using culture as a classification to refer to some things that anthropologists would agree are part of culture, but it was only a slice of what anthropologists might refer to should they use the term.  But the slices were different enough that I think you are right that people viewed their relationships to culture differently.  Samoan migrants did not think they were actively making their own culture while US white collar workers thought that every conscious decision they made helped them fashion a company culture.

 

Finally: who do you most hope will read your book?

I wrote this book for people looking for jobs, for people looking to hire, and for the career counselors who are giving advice.  I don’t like the model of the neoliberal self, and want to encourage people to refuse it.  The question is how to do this persuasively?  I turned to analyzing hiring because it is a moment of such uncertainty and anxiety that when people are being told they had to become a neoliberal self in order to get a job, they will do it for pragmatic purposes.   I hoped with this book to suggest that this was not the way to go, both because becoming a neoliberal self isn’t all that effective as a set of strategies and because it is not allowing people to be as ethical and good to each other as I hope they want to be.

 

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