Illuminating the invisible work of the unemployed through LinkedIn
Blogpost by Lotte Schack, Anthropologist and intern in ETHOS Lab >>>
I have never really gotten into using LinkedIn. As a student, I simply rejected using it altogether. However, when I graduated and entered the unemployment system, I felt that everyone I met couldn’t finish a sentence without including LinkedIn in it. Although questioning why the Danish state encourages the use of a privately-owned platform, consequently contributing to its already overwhelming value (in 2016, LinkedIn was sold to Microsoft for 26.2 billion dollars), I reluctantly decided to set up a profile so that the employers I sent applications to would not search my name on LinkedIn in vain. However, I couldn’t bring myself to really use it: To give details of my tasks at former jobs, choose a professional-looking photo and write about my professional skills. It has stayed mostly bare apart from my previous job titles.
With this project, I therefore wanted to experiment with the LinkedIn format in relation to my experience with the Danish unemployment system, which, as I have written about in another blog post, invest a lot of effort into training the unemployed to approach job searching and the labour market. LinkedIn is also a buzzword and a tool frequently referred to as a prerequisite in the hunt for a job. Job consultants repeatedly emphasise how companies increasingly recruit their employers through the platform and not using in therefore means missing out on possible employment opportunities. According to Tobback (2019), LinkedIn differs from other social media in that its explicit aim its self-promotion. Whereas users of other platforms such as Twitter or Instagram might “humblebrag”, LinkedIn users are expected to explicitly ascribe and categorize positive traits to themselves in their “summaries” in order to attract the attention of potential recruiters. To appear in searches particular buzzwords and categories are necessary and there are even courses on how to “optimise your LinkedIn presence” and how to cover up for anything that ranks your chances differently.
In an ETHOS manner, I decided to do a project of experimenting with the digital platform, although not aligned with instructions from the unemployment office. How would being ‘professionally unemployed’ look like in a LinkedIn profile? What if I wrote up the skills and experiences I have gained in the unemployment system as if they were skills and experienced acquired through work or education?
Rather than using my already existing profile, I set up a separate one: in spite of my critical approach to the platform, I could not help but worry that conducting this experiment on my main profile would affect my job chances negatively. As I have not participated in all of the activities offered by the a-kasse and jobcentre, I have included experiences from other unemployed graduates I have talked to. So, without further ado, I present to you the LinkedIn profile of the author as a young unemployed graduate: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lotte-s-78209519b/
As already mentioned the courses and skills included in the profile are not ones I would include in my regular profile but are nevertheless things required or encouraged by the unemployment system. In the experience section, I have for example included “morning workout” (figure 1) as this was something a job consultant urged me to, voluntary events offered by my a-kasse such as the “motivation morning café” (figure 2), and a job searching course with the external partner AS3 Employment, an obligatory activation measure (figure 3).
In the skills section, I have noted the skills the unemployed are expected to learn from the events and duties noted in the experience section (see picture)
When I tell people that I am unemployed, I am often asked how I manage to “kill time.” Don’t I get bored from not having a job? They imagine unemployment as a period with oceans of free time. This LinkedIn profile shows that this is not the case. Similarly, Lane (2016) argues that contrary to popular belief, being unemployed is increasingly experienced as an intensely eventful period. The activities one takes part in when being unemployed are nevertheless not recognised and could thus be categorised as what Star and Straus (1999) have called “invisible work”. The term refers to activities that are either not considered as work or not recognised at all. This can both be activities carried out in the home such as housework, but it can also be activities in the workplace not seen as work tasks. Albeit invisible, these forms of work are often crucial for the smooth functioning of a workplace: Star and Strauss use the example of how secretaries gossiping about their bosses are seen as wasting time, while the knowledge of the workplace acquired through this gossip actually helps the secretaries in their daily tasks.
Why certain forms of work are rendered invisible can in some instances be explained by for example sexist ideas of work (Federici 2012; Fortunati 1996), but it can also be a way for managers to avoid economically compensating for them: if they do not see it, they do not have to pay for it.
There are different ways of making invisible work visible. In her short story “A Manual for Cleaning Women” Lucia Berlin (2016) offers the following advice for cleaning women:
“Cleaning women: Let them know you are thorough. The first day put all the furniture back wrong… five to ten inches off, or facing the wrong way. When you dust reverse the Siamese cats, put the creamer to the left of the sugar. Change the toothbrushes all around. My masterpiece in this area was when I cleaned the top of Mrs. Burke’s refrigerator. She sees everything, but if I hadn’t left the flashlight on she would have missed the fact that I scoured and re-oiled the waffle iron, mended the geisha girl and washed the flashlight as well.”
Mostly, mistresses do not notice the hard work of their cleaning women – they have to do extra work like how Berlin mends Mrs. Burke’s geisha girl and make sure to re-arrange furniture and leave the light on to make them aware of it. Showcasing the skills I have acquired in the unemployment system and what I have participated in order to acquire them on my LinkedIn profile can be the digital flashlight showing how much invisible work being unemployed requires, thereby making it visible.
Interestingly enough, LinkedIn has estimated the strength of my profile as “intermediate”. That made me think: why would I not put these experiences on my regular profile? Clearly, LinkedIn thinks they are as valid as the working experience on that one. Why is the work of being unemployed rendered invisible? Would it not be helpful for potential employers to see that although unemployed, the applicant has not been sitting idly around but has actually been busy with various self-optimising activities? In another blog post, I have argued, drawing on an argument made by Weeks (2017) that when searching for a job one is required to approach each job opening with an equal amount of enthusiasm. This is why I have included “extroverted” and “smiling” as skills on my profile. However, the enthusiasm has to appear authentic: as if it’s coming from “inside” myself, not as if it is something I have been taught. Naming these traits as skills denaturalise them, instead of revealing them as requiring a considerable amount of “emotional labour” (Hochschild 2003) – another skill I have noted.
Furthermore, recognising the work that is part of being unemployed would perhaps make being unemployed appear as more legitimate than it is now, where the unemployed, in particular, unemployed university graduates are being framed as lazy (Berlingske 2019). Making unemployment more legitimate is of course undesirable for politicians, the state and the a-kasse, who all want us to enter the labour market as quickly as possible.
LinkedIn is used to promote a specific image of oneself: an employable and professional version. When enrolled in the Danish unemployment system, one is highly encouraged to make use of the platform in this specific way. In this experiment, I have sought to challenge this. I have showcased the skills acquired in the unemployed period that mostly remain unarticulated and registering the courses and activities the unemployed participate in as “experience”. In this way, I used LinkedIn to unveil the amount of work the unemployed are expected and required to put into our job search. What other uses of the platform might we think of? How else can we challenge its streamlined business aesthetics?
I hope you will consider adding me as a connection on LinkedIn and endorse my skills – and perhaps try adding some of your own invisible work to your profile.
Berlin, Lucia. 2016. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories. Reprint edition. New York: Picador.
Federici, Silvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero. Oakland, CA; Brooklyn, NY; London: PM Press.
Fortunati, Leopoldina. 1996. Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2003. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. 20th anniversary ed. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.
Lane, Carrie M. 2016. ‘THE LIMITS OF LIMINALITY: Anthropological Approaches to Unemployment in the United States’. In Anthropologies of Unemployment: New Perspectives on Work and Its Absence. Cornell University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt1gsmvzq.5.
Star, Susan Leigh, and Anselm Strauss. 1999. ‘Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work’. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 8 (1–2): 9–30. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008651105359.
Tobback, Els. 2019. ‘Telling the World How Skilful You Are: Self-Praise Strategies on LinkedIn’. Discourse & Communication 13 (6): 647–68. https://doi.org/10.1177/1750481319868854.
Weeks, Kathi. 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.