Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today, by Ilana Gershon

Job hunting? Like it or loathe it, LinkedIn is key and emotional labour is mandatory, says Philip Roscoe

April 13, 2017
A billboard with a job plea advertisement
Source: Rex

Imagine a world without stable or secure jobs. A world where jobseekers are told to embrace risk, to be flexible and upbeat, and where the engine of the economy is powered by passion and lubricated by uncertainty. Such is the world of new-economy employment skilfully documented by Ilana Gershon’s sympathetic and wide-ranging study.

For much of the 20th century, employment has been understood in Lockean terms of self-as-property, with the worker renting her bodily efforts and skills for a prearranged period of time. Such a metaphor implies boundaries between work and personal life, and squabbles over such boundaries have been codified in labour law. In the new economy, says Gershon, we have come to talk about our jobs in a very different way. Interactions around work – jobseeking, hiring, firing and quitting – are structured by a distinctive new metaphor that posits employment as a business-to-business relationship. To be a business is to be a bundle of skills, assets and relationships, arriving at a new employer ready to deliver a particular service on a short-term, contractual basis. When we buy a service from a business, we do not expect to invest in training or to have a long-term obligation once the service has been delivered. Gershon, a linguistic anthropologist, suggests that the change in metaphor underpins an important and unwelcome change in economic organisation.

Gershon’s book is based on a year-long empirical study of jobseekers and employers in the San Francisco Bay area. The world she finds is terrifying and topsy-turvy. It’s also incredibly hard work, and has given rise to a new industry of intermediaries and coaches, such as the effervescent and comically upbeat Pepper, who ascribes her job at Google to her overwhelming positivity. Then there is LinkedIn, the online social network, a constant, malevolent presence in these jobseekers’ lives. Gershon points out that LinkedIn does not work very well for academics, which makes me feel better about not knowing much about it, but in her study it is everywhere. It is, for example, one of the many places where jobseekers must work to develop their “personal brand”, a consistent, stable online identity reducible to three appropriately upbeat and dynamic words. Self-branding is Pepper’s speciality, of course. In a cruel irony, the hiring managers interviewed do not place any great importance on such efforts, and Gershon comes to see the concept of the personal brand as a means of giving generically applicable advice on getting a job in a highly fragmented employment market, and a creation of the coaching industry.

It turns out that nobody knows what to do with LinkedIn. It is the subject of intense debate among the participants in Gershon’s research as they struggle to work out the conventions of this strange new medium. Take the difficult problem of seeking to leave a job for a new one. In the knowledge that one’s colleagues may be surreptitiously watching LinkedIn for signs of sudden activity, is it better to surreptitiously update one’s profile over a period of time, or do the whole thing at the weekend and pass it off as overdue housekeeping? Offline, the process of moving on is equally fraught, as workers seek to sever ties and maintain relationships at the same time. Moving on too early from a job is bad, but so is staying too long; current coworkers may be one’s future bosses and vice versa. As with so many scenarios that Gershon describes, these workers are adrift in uncertain waters and often take refuge in more familiar metaphors. Changing jobs, says one, is like a break-up: it’s not about you, it’s about me.

At the same time, in another paradox of the gig economy, everyone seems to know that these online networks count for nothing. There are simply too many people looking for jobs and too many résumés in circulation. Jobseekers must use their networks to get their CV placed on the desk of someone who matters, circumventing the algorithmic gatekeepers that weed out applications on the flimsiest pretext. In a rather lengthy excursus, Gershon revisits Mark Granovetter’s 1973 claim that job opportunities flow best through “weak ties” (casual friendships) and suggests that it is now former colleagues who provide the best access to new employment. (Granovetter’s thesis, meanwhile, has trickled into the public domain, and in a second piece of generic advice, job coaches tell their audiences to build networks wherever they can.) As personal networks become ever more vital in getting one’s résumé on the hirer’s desk, so hiring will become more restricted and exclusive. When an old boys’ network becomes a young boys’ network, as Gershon so nicely puts it, there will be new kinds of exclusion at work.

Older metaphors of work-as-rental left space for our inner lives. No one asked us to be passionate about shovelling. Now passion is all-important. In a rare moment of explicit critique, Gershon sees passion as a rhetorical device to engage and retain workers, replacing an older mantra of company loyalty. She is concerned, and rightly so, about the implications of this logic: that it insists that any personal liking could and should be monetised, that it ignores structural inequalities between occupations, and that it leads jobseekers to blame themselves when they cannot find a job. Passion fails her interviewees. They do not relish the risk and uncertainty that they are supposed to embrace. In a country devoid of collective safety nets, the downside is just too sharp. They are worn down by the continual strain of being upbeat and entrepreneurial, the labour of endlessly curating their personal brands, and the anxieties of navigating collectively unknown social structures and strange, new intertwinings of money, obligation and reward.

The book’s greatest strength is also its weakness. The sheer volume of material means that Gershon sometimes loses her narrative and simply offers a sourcebook of new economy awfulness. Theory is in the background: she sees résumés and LinkedIn pages as conversational forms with specific participant structures. But in her pursuit of a more general readership, Gershon has washed her theory out, and it’s not quite clear what work is being done. While the material is fascinating, her book lacks bite, both theoretically and politically.

At a branding workshop she attends as part of her research, Gershon is incensed when a “clueless but determinedly goodwilled undergraduate” (the most damning verdict in the whole book, by the way) describes her as “sweet”. But it’s true: Gershon is genteel to the point of blandness. She takes the jobseekers’ side, but leaves it for us to be horrified that capital is absorbing so much of workers’ lives and at the same time somehow holding those workers ever more responsible.

There is plenty for us to find horrifying. Take Chris, an unemployed IT contractor in his mid-fifties, who realises that he may soon find himself homeless. In the best frontiersman spirit, he begins to sleep on the floor, training his body for the rigours of nights on the pavement. Chris is saved by a last-minute contract, but his story epitomises this brave new world: its uncertainty and ageism, the absolute absence of any safety net, all underpinned by an emphasis on self-reliance and responsibility. We must be flexible and upbeat, even as we bed down in the street: down and out in the new economy.

Philip Roscoe is reader in management, University of St Andrews.


Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today
By Ilana Gershon
University of Chicago Press, 304pp, £19.00
ISBN 9780226452142 and 2289
Published 8 May 2017


The author

Ilana Gershon, Indiana University

Ilana Gershon, associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, grew up in Philadelpha – “and boy, do my hand gestures have a Philly accent”.

She was, she recalls, “a very very earnest child. For a number of years, I would spend four days every summer reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wanted to read a book a day, but those are very long books, and I always failed by a hundred pages or so. And my parents never said a word about this quixotic goal.”

As an undergraduate at Stanford University, Gershon “managed to be both very decisive and also unable to trust my judgement at all. I decided to go to Stanford because when I visited as a prospective student, I was deeply dismayed by how laid back everyone was. I thought: ‘I am 17, and I don’t want to go to a place because people are too laid back? I have to get over myself.”

Is the job-search process she describes in this book – with relentless pressure to see oneself as a brand, and accept very weak work-life boundaries – similar for academics?

“Branding for academics should be a slightly different practice than it is for the white-collar workers I studied – academics, after all, are trying to be known for having a certain expertise. These white-collar workers were trying to demonstrate three or four supposedly consistent personality traits in all their online interactions,” she comments.  

“But drawing on personal experience on academic hiring committees, I suspect that personal branding for academics is as overrated and unnecessarily time-consuming an activity as it is for those I interviewed. It matters far more what you publish and how well, or what you can teach, then what you blog. Just like I never heard a hiring manager say: ‘I had to call that applicant in for an interview, they had such a great personal brand!’, I have also never heard an applicant praised for their online presence in a hiring committee. But their articles or books – those I have heard people discuss with enthusiasm. I am not saying it doesn’t matter at all; I haven’t done the right research to know. Still, all academics have limited time and might want to focus mainly on the tasks that still clearly are the backbone of an academic reputation.”

Down and Out in the New Economy paints a grim picture of what one is expected to do to get a job in 2017. Gershon says: “Research for this book was the most depressing research I have ever done. The white-collar workers I interviewed weren’t very sceptical about all the advice they received about how they had to treat themselves as though they were businesses. Sometimes I admitted at the end of an interview that I found personal branding to be a problematic concept, and inevitably whoever I was talking to would wholeheartedly defend it.

“I spent the next summer talking to homeless people in the same geographic area about how they used digital technologies to look for jobs, and found these interviews much more uplifting. The homeless people I interviewed knew that this was a system that wasn’t designed for them, and they often questioned why things had to be this way, or refused to engage in the expected ways.

She adds: “When I went back to the classroom after researching the book, I mentioned casually in a class, as if everyone in the room knew, that of course my students would be looking for a job every couple of years. They were shocked, and asked me why on earth I thought this. They wanted stable jobs, make no mistake.”

Is there room for hope in the fact that many of the things that job applicants worry about (having too diverse a group of contacts on LinkedIn, for example) are not concerns for those doing the hiring? Or does this just underscore the fact that looking for work is an increasingly fraught process as work becomes more precarious and jobseekers blame themselves?

“This discrepancy between what jobseekers think they should do and what employers focus on has led me to wonder if universities could do a clearer job teaching students how to evaluate all the advice that they are surrounded by as jobseekers. When you look for a job, you are surrounded by advice – some is good and some is crappy. But no one ever talks about how to tell the difference. I think academics teach all the necessary skills to help people think more critically and analytically about how others interpret texts such as resumes, cover letters and LinkedIn profiles, or how organisations make decisions, but we don’t connect the dots for students often enough.” 

If Gershon could change one thing about her institution, what would it be?

“I wish the university was less focused on a short-term version of education in which it was only preparing people for their first job. My university could offer forms of education that could help people with their fifth job or 10th job. Or help prepare people for addressing the questions that life poses to everyone in their thirties, forties and so on, not just the concerns of those in their late teens.

What gives her hope?

“These days? Right now I only have a dark faith in what seems to be a universal human ability – people’s general talent for creating social problems for each other. At least this has the potential of thwarting so many of today’s poorly laid plans.”

Karen Shook

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