Employability: An Ineffective Policy Discourse, and Some Alternatives

Just reviewing some of the comments on Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2005 Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. If you haven’t read it, Ehrenreich poses as an educated woman who’s been out of the work force for a few years to care for her children. Her apparent mission? To land herself a decent, white collar job commensurate with her education, skills, and work history. Her real mission? To expose, in full blown comic-tragedy, the ugliness that can be the executive/professional job search.

Admittedly, this book is a bummer. It’s a sort of a cold comfort, a place to commiserate, perhaps, for educated, skilled people who can’t get jobs. At least you know you’re not alone! On the other hand, I was a bit disappointed with this book when it lacked the analytical punch of her previous work, Nickel and Dimed . But the work does very effectively highlight what can only be called – well – the bullshit side of employability.

Ehrenreich wends her way through a “shadow industry” of service providers who will tweak her resume, identify her skills, coach her, network her, and otherwise ensure that looking for a job is her fulltime job.1.The idea here (you’ve probably heard the clichés) is to be “entrepreneurial” and “sell yourself.” You can package yourself, brand yourself, market yourself: you are the product.

Critics of this concept sometimes refer to an “entrepreneurial self” or a “projective self” (that is, the self-as-a-project), and consider its effects on the psyche2, as well as its success in perpetuating the belief that if you’re not working yet, you’re just not trying hard enough. So what happens here is that the notion (or in more academic-y terms “discourse”) of employability attributes the problem to individual behaviour rather than systemic or structural problems in the economy. Simply put, you’re the problem, not the labour market.

The thing is, this is crap. The labour market is a problem. When you have a limited demand, by employers, for skilled full-time permanent workers and an enormous supply of workers…Well I don’t remember much from my undergrad economics classes, but the basic laws of supply and demand do stick out in my mind. Yet when we focus on more education and skills development (labour market supply), we simply downplay and obscure the demand side of the labour market.

Ehrenreich certainly recognizes the demand side of the problem. It’s likely a solid source of a degree (I’m not sure how much) of political mobilization around demand side adjustments through the author’s advocacy organization, United Professionals.  What’s interesting about this organization, though, is that its efforts may simply be feeding into the same systemic problems that the employability discourse obscures.

Let me explain how I see this working. We’ve got this idea of employability that makes individuals morally and practically culpable for being out of work, even though, as Ehrenreich illustrates, they’ve ultimately got no control over or say in the demand side of the labour market. I agree with this. It’s one of the reasons why the employability thing is so twisted; it mislabels the problem, and misattributes its causes.

What’s the problem? Again, it’s that the average “worker” has little power. S/he is dependent on employers to provide good work. S/he is dependent on a large, complex system of educational institutions to gain appropriate credentials. S/he is dependent upon the state to regulate the whole mess.

Yet instead of questioning the system of dependencies that leads so many workers, both skilled and unskilled, paralyzed to respond meaningfully, Ehrenreich seems to want to expand the system dependencies! The mandate or philosophy of United Professionals3 is summarized in the tagline “professionals deserve to earn a good living.” The approach is to take this merit based argument as justification for expanded state legislation with respect to wages, childcare, benefits, and other components of job security.

Now I’m no libertarian, nor am I opposed to good, secure work as a social goal. But I’m just not seeing how *more* state intervention is going to help us out here. I’m much more interested in how the power structures  we already have in place, many of which deeply implicate the state, function to limit our capacity to act in our own best interests. A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times proposes that corporatism in all its forms has paralyzed social and economic creativity4. What struck me most here in relation to unemployment is how highly centralized policies and economic structures may work against smart, talented people taking their fate a little more into their own hands. The article’s author summarizes the thought of British “radical conservative” Phillip Blond5. I was most thoughtful about this passage:

“Economically, Blond lays out three big areas of reform: remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor. This would mean passing zoning legislation to give small shopkeepers a shot against the retail giants, reducing barriers to entry for new businesses, revitalizing local banks, encouraging employee share ownership, setting up local capital funds so community associations could invest in local enterprises, rewarding savings, cutting regulations that socialize risk and privatize profit, and reducing the subsidies that flow from big government and big business.”

So Blond’s really proposing forms of deregulation and regulatory innovation that steer power away from existing, large institutions and toward local, community, and  individual initiatives. Perhaps this article caught my attention, and that of others, because it does challenge the perceived inevitability of big states, big schools, and big employers as determinants of who we are and what we can become. Employability, as Bait and Switch painfully documents, is a big fat misrepresentation of the scope of individual power in the labour market. It is this injustice that, I believe, fuels Ehrenreich’s sense of indignance and compassion (and frankly, my own). Good work for everyone is a laudable social goal; it’s part of treating human beings like human beings. I’m just not convinced that handing more power over to the institutions that already dictate our lives – the strategy that United Professionals seems to advocate – is really the direction we want to be heading.


1I’ll set aside, for the time being, the anyone-can-hang-a shingle problem here, but it’s equally as disturbing as the topic at hand. Credentialing and regulation of professions and occupations is…yeah… sort of a hobby topic.

2British sociologist Anthony Giddens, and Ulrich Beck (Germany) are two better known authors on the topic of “individualization,” which weaves together these main ideas: 1) social structures and norms have eroded; 2) this leaves us with an amazing degree of choice in our lives about “who we want to be,” which has both positive and negative consequences; 3) relationships between individuals and social groups (families, communities) have been replaced by relationships between individuals and institutions. That’s the really, really, really condensed version, anyway…

3United Professionals Mandate: http://www.unitedprofessionals.org/about/

4Over the weekend, Chris Labossiere  circulated The Broken Society , an op-ed piece that, judging by re-tweets and comments, resonated with many.

5See Blond’s case more fully developed: The Rise of the Red Tories. . Here’s Blond’s Twitter profile.


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