Training for precarity

Blogpost by Lotte Schack, Anthropologist and intern in ETHOS Lab >>>

For a few months, unemployed university graduates have been subject to heated debate (Berlingske 2019, Politiken 2019), which coincidentally started around the time I entered the unemployment system after having completed a degree with unpromising employment prospects. I graduated with a master in anthropology in the middle of September, perhaps ironically with a thesis about precarious employment in Berlin. This blog post explores how the Danish unemployment system trains newly unemployed graduates to approach job searching and asks how that shapes unemployed graduates’ relationship to the labour market. As I have experience with the system myself, I conducted a mainly auto-ethnographic project (Reed-Danahay 1997; Williams 2015), complemented by a few interviews with other unemployed university graduates.

Morality of work

According to political theorist Kathi Weeks (2011), contemporary Western societies are what she calls work-centred societies: Work is broadly understood as a moral and political good and as something our lives are expected to be centred around (we are all familiar with the usual first question when meeting someone: “So, what do you do?). When work is seen as a moral good, unemployment comes to be seen as amoral. In this way, it is not surprising that the unemployment system makes certain that the unemployed show that they are doing their utmost to find work through weekly obligations. After becoming unemployed, the most visited web sites in my browser have changed to Jobnet, the municipal digital platform for unemployed people, and my a-kasse’s self-service website. Here, I log the jobs I apply for, register that I’ve checked for automated job suggestions and upload applications and CVs. Apart from this, I have been required to go to a meeting with the jobcentre and a meeting with my a-kasse each month and have been sent into a two weeks job searching course and am now doing an internship.

The emotional labour of being unemployed

Weeks argues that work today is increasingly about who we are rather than just what we do (Weeks 2011:54). Therefore, unemployment is seen as an individual problem rather than caused by issues in the political economy or prejudices in the labour market. Likewise, in the unemployment system, the emphasis is on teaching us how to write CVs and applications– and how to optimize ourselves in our job searching effort. At an a-kasse meeting, the following advice was given on how to structure our everyday life:

”A lot of you probably exercise. And that’s really great, you get a lot of energy from doing that. But have you thought about what time of the day you do it? Because if you do it in the evening, then all that energy goes to waste. But if you do it first thing in the morning, then you can use of all that energy in your job search.”

Weeks detects a new “ideology of work”, one that requires us to find love and happiness in our workplace, rather than merely seeing it as a source of income. However, the love we are supposed to feel should come from us, regardless of what we do – “love what you do” rather than “do what you love” is the mantra (Weeks 2017:52). Similarly, when applying for jobs, one has to approach each job opening with enthusiasm and passion, throwing your whole heart (and body as the above quote shows) into the application. “I’m missing a sense of who you are as a person,” I was told by a job consultant looking through one of my applications. I had written about my education and my work experience – but that wasn’t enough.

The requirement to show a high level of enthusiasm reminded me of Arlie Hochschild’s (2003) concept of emotional labour. Hochschild uses the term to describe how certain occupations require workers to display particular emotions at work – her example is that of flight attendants (ibid.:24). Similarly, the unemployed must always appear to be enthusiastic and outgoing. In the “professional profile” one is required to complete on Jobnet (figure 1), I have written that I am “smiling and outgoing” –perhaps an exaggeration: I have one of those faces that always makes people ask me whether I am mad at them.

Figure 1. The author’s “professional profile” on Jobnet

I interviewed Simone who is very proactive in her job search: She is an avid user of LinkedIn and has approached numerous companies to inquire about the possibility for an internship. Although she felt optimistic about the search, she described being tired of “selling herself”:

”It’s so unnatural (…) having to verbalise how good you are all the time. Of course you have to sell yourself in a workplace, but you aren’t going to be like ”I’m an agile and ambitious colleague” (..) I also think I’m lovely and good, but do I have to say it? Do I have to write it? I mean that thing with getting it out of your fingertips, it just seems so unnatural to have to address it all the time.”

Here, Simone describes having to constantly name her positive traits as “unnatural”. Hochschild argues that when managing feelings becomes part of the job, they become a commodity the worker has to sell (Hochschild 2003:7). This commodification can alienate the worker from her own feelings (ibid.:187). Following this, perhaps the expectation to put so much of yourself into the job application process is part of the reason why Helen, who has been unemployed for six weeks and have applied for 40 different positions, finds rejection “really hard” and names it as one of the reasons she finds entering the labour market “anxiety-inducing”. In spite of this, we imagine that all the applications we write and all the rejections we meet will pay off in some (hopefully) not too distant future. Simone told me that she saw all the time spent on applications as research about the labour market she would be able to utilise in a future job.

However, this will probably not be the last time we find ourselves in the unemployment system. The full-time, long term employment protected by collective labour agreements I and the other graduates strive towards achieving is gradually disappearing and replaced with an increasingly precarious labour market. In this regard the training to put all of our hearts and bodies into selling ourselves to the labour market makes perfect sense: We must learn to be constantly employable. The UK-based Precarious Workers Brigade (2016) criticises the heightened focus on employability in higher education as well as the increasing expectancy for students to take on unpaid internships (oops) for training students to accept bad working conditions once they graduate. I suspect that something similar goes on in the unemployment system. Take this quote from an a-kasse consultant:

“When you’re writing a job application, make sure to focus on what the employer gets out of hiring you rather than what you get out of working for them. You have to think about that you’re quite expensive to hire: With your monthly salary, pension and perks, it adds up to quite a lot.”

Talking about us as expenses companies have to take on rather than workers creating value risks creating “a labour force that embraces its own exploitation” (Tokumitsu in Weeks 2012:49). By teaching us that we should be thankful for being employed, by instigating a high work morale and an obligation to love all work and by training us to manage our feelings, we become a labour force willing to compromise on salary, job security and protection in exchange for employment – and as such, perfect for a precarious labour market.

 

Bibliography

Berlingske 2019. ”Hummelgaard til ledige akademikere: Man skal ikke føle sig for fin til at sidde i Netto.” Written by Bent Winther 8th of November 2019. Link: https://www.berlingske.dk/danmark/hummelgaard-til-ledige-akademikere-man-skal-ikke-foele-sig-for-fin-til-at. Last accessed: 02.12.2019.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2003. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. 20th anniversary ed. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Politiken 2019a. ”Borgmester: A-kasser overbeskytter luddovne nyuddannede.” 12th of November 2019. Link: https://politiken.dk/indland/art7490917/Borgmester-A-kasser-overbeskytter-luddovne-nyuddannede. Last accessed: 02.12.2019.

Precarious Workers Brigade. 2016. Training for Exploitation? Politicising Employability and Reclaiming Education. London: The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press. Link: https://www.joaap.org/press/pwb/PWB_Text_FINAL.pdf.

Reed-Danahay, Deborah. 1997. Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social. 1st Edition. Oxford ; New York: Berg Publishers.

Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press Books.

———. 2017. ‘Down with Love: Feminist Critique and the New Ideologies of Work’. WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 45 (3–4): 37–58. https://doi.org/10.1353/wsq.2017.0043.

Williams, Kaiton. 2015. ‘An Anxious Alliance’. Aarhus Series on Human Centered Computing 1 (1): 11. https://doi.org/10.7146/aahcc.v1i1.21146.