Interview by Kam Sandhu & Ranjan Balakumaran
We interviewed Ilana Gershon about the themes of her new book ‘Down and Out in the New Economy’, which explains the ‘radical transformation’ that’s taken place in the way we see employment and work.
‘In today’s economy, you can’t just be an employee looking to get hired—you have to market yourself as a business, one that can help another business achieve its goals.’
– In your new book, you talk about becoming a brand/business in the jobs market, to what extent are we already policing our online lives in favor of future employment?
Branding is a very specific way of policing your online life – you are supposed to choose three or four words that reflect your authentic self and then make sure that every online interaction you have reflects these three or four words in some way. This is different than the other forms of policing that people would tell me about in interviews.
What struck me in doing this research is that people are not always conscious that future employers are part of their online audience. Instead, there are landmark moments in which people begin to police their everyday online interactions anticipating a potential employer. People often mentioned noticing that they would always get a request for a LinkedIn connection when a co-worker was about to quit for another job. And they would often see who was spending a lot of time updating their LinkedIn profile, taking this to be a sign that their colleague was looking for a new job. When I interviewed recent college graduates, they would often describe an arc in their social media use. When they first got to college, they would connect with everyone by social media, they would accept anyone as a Facebook friend or whichever social media site they were using at the time. Then, as they got closer to graduation, they began to prune their online connections. Some would create a “clean” professional profile for the job search, and have a profile with a funny name for their friends. More than one person told me about using the fact that Facebook lets you know when your Facebook friends are having a birthday to thin out these connections. Every morning, they would look to see who had a birthday. If they didn’t know the person well enough to feel comfortable wishing the person a happy birthday on Facebook, they would defriend the person.
In general, people seemed to police themselves at particular stages of looking for a job, not all the time. Although I was interviewing people for this project when Facebook introduced the timeline, which worried a lot of the job seekers I was talking to. Many ended up deciding that recruiters would probably not check absolutely everything, and they could be more relaxed.
Are we aware of the extent to which employers are making decisions about us with our social media profiles?
I think most people have decided to ignore this, and with good reason. After all, employers are human, and as such, are interpreting social media profiles in the same unpredictable ways in which people are always sorting what they read. Some employers won’t mind lots of pictures of people at a party, others will see this as a reason not to hire someone.
The reasons that employers find social media useful is also pointing to a general problem in hiring. The forms everyone is using to sort applicants are standardized (and standardizing) and provide very limited information about what someone might actually be like as a co-worker. So employers turn to social media to get a fuller sense of who this person is. But then, all the skills that the employers develop to interpret their friends and co-workers’ social media practices are being applied to a job applicant. There are no standardized or predictable ways to interpret a social media profile. Both employers and applicants know this, so I think there is a good reason why applicants have largely given up on worrying about what is so unknowable and unpredictable.
Do you feel too much power is being put in the hands of the employer?
Yes. But I am afraid that my answer for why takes me away from discussing your article’s topic. I think that since the 1980s, the frameworks we have for understanding the work contract has shifted. We used to think that we owned ourselves as though we were property, and so were renting ourselves to employers for a clearly defined work shift, and got our “selves” back again at the end of the shift. There was a relatively clear demarcation this way between work and personal life (even though people tried to undercut it in various ways, but it was still a given, rather than something one had to actively construct through careful management of work/life balance). Many labor battles were fought, and won from within the framework of this metaphor of self-as-property. Then the metaphor shifted in the 1980s so that we now imagine ourselves as a business, entering into a business-to-business contract with a larger company when we get hired. When this shift happened, the grounds for fighting for workers’ rights changed, but I think businesses have been faster and more efficient at exploiting the new way of framing the employment contract, and workers haven’t figured out terribly effective ways to do so (yet?).
You talk about the blurring of professional and personal lives, what are some of the effects on the quality of your personal life in particular?
When people are trying to create a personal brand assuming that there are no true boundaries between their personal and professional lives, they are always on. It means that their personal life also becomes a set of activities that they have to consciously manage, and moreover consciously manage according to a relatively restrictive criteria. People are supposed to have a clear and relatively simple model of what their personality is, and make sure that all their online interactions reflect this. They are supposed to be constantly asking themselves – does this way of interacting accurately reflect my “authentic” self, when the authentic self is reduced to three or four words? So this introduces a new way of constantly policing yourself, and policing yourself in ways that might actually get in the way of having a rich personal life. It forces you to be far more instrumental about your personal life, seeing yourself as a perpetually performing for a business-driven gaze.
Did you have any thoughts on the Pepsi Ad featuring Kendall Jenner in terms of branding? Pepsi is perhaps one of the big companies some might hope to work for, and yet if we are curating our output to please companies/employers which continue to be ‘out of touch’, does this cause further problems?
Asked this way, I think what is fascinating about the Kendall Jenner/Pepsi ad controversy is that now that people are supposed to think of themselves as businesses, they have to worry about their relationships to companies in a new light. They have to worry about whether their brand is aligning properly with the company’s brand, and make sure that their brand alliances don’t harm them. It means a different set of choices when thinking about whether you want to accept a job offer or contract, you have to think about the businesses you are connecting to differently. Job negotiations might also look different, perhaps you could ask for compensation for risking your brand in a certain way. In general, I have wondered if this can be a space in which workers start claiming some power back – if insisting that companies behave well to their employers on the ground that companies shouldn’t want to harm their recruitment brand might be effective. I admit I don’t think this is a very robust strategy, but it is at least one possibility that could be explored given the current ways people understand the work contract.