Another week goes by sifting through job listings and submitting applications on Indeed.com. Maybe the resume robots will weed them out again and the interviews won’t come. Side hustles and gigs trickle in money that disappears as soon as it lands in bank accounts. When the weekend rolls around, staying home is better than going out with friends and having them pick up the tab. Repeat this for months—or longer, in the post-Great Recession world of unemployment where jobless stats in OC and beyond continue to decline, but people still find themselves worse off than before the economy crashed.
In a new book, Cal State Fullerton American Studies Professor Carrie M. Lane delves into the world of not working in co-editing Anthropologies of Unemployment: New Perspectives on Work and its Absence. The collection spans the globe in looking at job seeking culture and the shame of being out of work.
The Weekly spoke with Professor Lane about a good book to read now or when “in between” jobs!
OC Weekly (Gabriel San Roman): How did this anthology of anthropology come together with you co-editing the effort?
Carrie Lane: That’s actually to the credit of our publisher at Cornell University Press Fran Benson. She had published my first book and another anthropologist Jong Bum Kwon came by her booth to chat. She told him, “You and Carrie Lane need to talk.” She put us in touch and he pitched the idea of putting together a panel for the American Anthropological Association Conference. From the beginning, we were hopeful that it might grow into something bigger and it did. In 2012, we had a double session. Everybody’s work was just so interesting and all the scholars were such a pleasure to work with, that we decided we wanted to turn this conversation into a book!
In your chapter, you look at tech workers and the culture of job seeking. What did your field work teach you about what conventional ideas of unemployment may miss?
I didn’t actually set out to study unemployment. I wanted to study working in the tech industry following the dot com crash in 2001, but when I got to the field, everybody was out of work. I was going to these professional events looking to network with CEOs and start-up companies. I kept meeting job seekers who were looking to talk to the same people I was looking to talk to. I started to realize the bigger story about work in high tech was among people looking for work, not people that had secure jobs. What I was first surprised by is the way we think about unemployment, especially for white collar, middle-class men, is that this is supposed to be devastating. That just wasn’t the expectation that these tech workers had, whether male of female.
They weren’t surprised to lose their jobs. They didn’t love it, but they weren’t shocked. In high tech, it had already become normal to change jobs, voluntarily or not. What I saw in tech workers is that they were canaries in the mine for the rest of what had been seen as safe occupations to work in. They didn’t expect to work at the same company for life. That’s unfortunately becoming truer and truer for most American workers whether they like it or not. Security, at least in its traditional form, doesn’t exist as an option anymore.
Another chapter looks at positive psychology as part of job seeking culture. But the book presents a nuanced look at how that plays out in the minds of the unemployed, does it not?
That’s Claudia Strauss’ chapter. She’s at Pitzer College. First of all, hers is interesting because it covers a wider swath of job seekers than mine does. She’s looking at job seekers in Southern California but at all different occupations and income levels. She looks at how this really American emphasis on the power of positive thinking. When I did my research in 2001, after awhile these job seekers start to get frustrated and they do feel like there’s something wrong with this system but they can’t quite articulate what it is and they blame themselves more. They talk about other people getting fed up and trying to make change, but it’s not going to be them. When Claudia Strauss starts doing her research a decade later, they are talking about actions they can take. Usually, when people write about positive thinking, the idea is that it prevents people from being critical of the status quo. Strauss finds unemployed people were very able to think positively while also mounting pretty clear and persuasive critiques of the way the labor market works these days.
The World Health Organization recently published a report noting unemployment as a leading cause of depression globally. What chapters best highlight the struggle of shame and loss of identity when talking about unemployment around the world?
There’s three. The most obvious choice would be Dan Mains’ chapter on youth, unemployment, progress and shame in urban Ethopia. One of the things that Mains does really well in that chapter is explain that not having a job isn’t just about the stress of being out of work. For all of these young people, all the standard markers of adulthood aren’t available to them. It’s not just that they can’t make money, it’s that they can’t start households, get married, have children and move away from their parents’ home. Mariano Perelman’s work on cirujas in Buenos Aires looks at the downward mobile people who lost jobs that had to resort to gathering cardboard, for them there was a strong sense of shame. People start collecting outside their own neighborhood first. They don’t want their neighbors to see them doing it, but they do want to help their families survive. For the men, especially, there’s this real tension that the manly thing to do is to provide for one’s family.
The third chapter I point to is Kwon’s on Korean autoworkers. One of things I really like about that chapter is how he looks at how embodied the shame and the pain of unemployment is. These workers, who work really physically demanding jobs, were healthy while they were working. And then, when they’re not working, the trauma of the job loss and of continued unemployment just plays out in their bodies and minds in really tangible ways. Thinking about the unemployed body is really interesting and something that hasn’t been looked at as much before.
We traversed the globe in that last question, but you do teach mostly millennial students at Cal State Fullerton. How do you see the new economy impacting the outlook of your everyday students?
I see two different things. Speaking of the millennial generation, I definitely see a lot less confidence in what the future holds professionally. The statistics show that having a college degree makes more of a difference now than it ever has over having a high school diploma. Your chances of employment are so much better. Your earnings are going to be so much better. And yet still, the jobs that four-year graduates are getting are not the kind their parents were getting out of school. A lot of my students expect to struggle. They don’t have a false sense of security. They’ll take on all these side jobs so they’re pursuing something they love while they’re also pursuing something that makes them enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table. There’s this perception that millennials are lazy or just not ambitious and that’s just not the case. But they do have a very understandable anxiety about what their professional lives are going to look like.
Anthropologies of Unemployment: New Perspectives on Work and its Absence, edited by Carrie Lane and Jong Bum Kwon; Cornell University Press, 280 pages, $29.95