I interviewed Cheryl* several years ago right after she was let go from her job as a healthcare administrator. Cheryl described a fundamental denial of dignity when it came to the logistics of packing up her office after she was informed that she no longer had a job. She was briskly told to “hand in your keys, hand in your pager, hand in your ID card.” And while she packed up her office and separated out her personal belongings, “HR had somebody sitting next to me.”
The experience stung her. She viewed being policed in this way as being deemed untrustworthy. In her characteristic composed manner Cheryl told me: “I felt like I was not appreciated, quite frankly.” After several years of loyally working for the organisation, she had expected more.
The unemployed men and women that I interviewed for my book, Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment, were college-educated and belonged to dual-earner families. All lived and worked in the US and were parents. But across the world, and in the UK, COVID has amplified job losses and fears over what will come next. These workers, too, will face some of the issues that participants in my book did.
Through the course of my research I found that this bureaucratic denial of humanity, where workers were informed that they no longer had jobs and then escorted out supervised, was just the start of an arduous process that would test the emotional stamina of unemployed job-seekers. This only became more acute as they delved into job-searching.
Brian, who lost his corporate job about four months before I interviewed him, shook his head in exasperation with looking for jobs. “A lot of them, you don’t hear anything back,” he said. Christina, who lost her job working in the management side of the food industry described the emotional toll of trying to get re-employed while at a low professional point: “It’s really hard to go to a networking event … and shake a bunch of hands and smile when you think you’re not worth being scraped off of somebody’s shoe.”
Christina’s reference to networking captures the widespread understanding among white-collar job-seekers in the US: that job searching is a multi-layered activity which involves extensive networking, investing in upgrading skills certifications (for example, spending time and money on getting a certification for project management), learning how to craft resumes, developing a brand, and generally devoting oneself to finding a job.
Applying to hundreds of jobs, going on dozens of interviews, and still not getting a job is devastating. Brian’s wife, Emily, was deeply worried about him, and wondered out loud to me: “How’re you going to find a job when you have no confidence and are very emotional?”
The unemployed people I studied had frequently had successful professional careers. If measuring success by income, many had earned six-figure salaries and even received commendations and promotions right before they lost their jobs. (For example Kevin, an unemployed project manager I interviewed, had receiving an award from the president of his global company just a few months before he lost his job).
Losing a job shook their self-confidence and made them doubt their professional worth. This was not helped by the process of job-searching. The advice that unemployed job-seekers in the US routinely receive, for instance through job-search clubs, says that their personalities – the cheer, friendliness, enthusiasm, passion – that they can convey to employers are as important, if not more, than their professional expertise.
As unemployed job-seekers navigate the complicated world of white-collar job-searching, they are told that if they are not finding a job it is because there is a flaw within them: they don’t know how to search for jobs in the new economy; they need to upgrade their skills; they have not yet found their professional calling; they are not spending sufficient time searching for jobs.
But these understandings of unemployment as due to some sort of deficit within job-seekers ignore the larger, structural reality within which unemployment and job-searching take place. This is an economic reality where good jobs are few and getting scarcer, where the employer-worker contract is frayed, and where risks have been offloaded onto individuals and their families. Even relatively credentialed and affluent workers, such as those I spoke to in my research, are not immune to these broader trends.
Unemployed job-seekers are being gaslighted. Professional careers, even for the relatively more privileged white-collar workers, simply do not offer a path of economic security as they did in the post-war years. We live and work in an economic context where precarity is widespread. Paid work as it currently exists is untenable for workers to depend on for the essentials of their lives, including planning for retirement or healthcare.
The focus on how individuals search for jobs – nit-picking on how they present their resumes, fussing over what demeanour they have in job interviews, questioning whether they have found their calling – fundamentally misdiagnoses the problem: that there are simply too few jobs of quality.
Solutions seeking to alleviate the challenges that unemployed job-seekers encounter need to shift away from providing individualised tools such as guiding job-seekers to take personality and aptitude tests to best determine where they belong vocationally. Rather, the focus should be on pushing for systemic change which recognises how very broken the organisation of paid work is currently. We can consider holding employers more accountable, as through labour and employment legislation. Another option is universal basic income, which would provide a level of income to every citizen for the duration of their life. This would be an ample enough sum of money which would not require them to participate in paid work in order to meet the basics of living. Pushing for these types of changes would allow people to live lives of dignity even in the absence of paid work.
Aliya Rao received funding from the National Science foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant 15389531, Ortner Center Seed Grant, Teece Fellowship, and Pollak Summer Research Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania for this study.
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