|I HAVEN'T READ Ehrenreich's latest book, but this is from the paper I gave
her, among the other research I did on underemployment last fall.
It's an abridged version of my own work on the topic. What I found back in
1995-6 was precisely that the demand was for people to shut up and stop
talking about structural explanations for their fate, just as BE found.
What I also found was that there was a relentless demand to always be
chipper, happy, positive, upbeat. Otherwise, you are "negative" and "bad
In short, negative thinking is the explanation for why you are unemployed.
As a consequence, you must never, ever engage in any negativity at all. You
must never complain, you must never talk about structural phenomena, you
must never, ever say anything that indicates that you might not be successful.
If what they are ultimately telling people is that the cause for
unemployment is actually one's attitude, then naturally the solution is to
change your attitude or engage in "magical thinking." The few book reviews
and articles on BE's latest have focused on this "magical thinking" that
goes on in the transition industry, but as I argue in my paper, it's part
of a larger social structural phenom. in which we all participate.
Here's the issue: One of the things that exacerbates the problems for these
people is that well-meaning counselors, friends, and family reproduce the
tendency to self-blame by offering individualistic solutions and advice.
So, if we take this research seriously what do we do. If what you learn
from my research and that of others is that the advice you dole out is,
ultimately, reinscribing the entire system, what's the alternative?
I haven't read BE's book, so I don't know what's she said about it. In my
own paper, I didn't offer any answers, though I did offer a series of
criticisms at the end directed toward the town conference and benchmarking
study we were involved in creating as a result of my and others research on
This is a snippet from my research on the topic. Part II to follow:
RE-PACKAGING THE SELF
Linda Simmons, the president of Transitions, Inc., is very conscientious
about conveying the structural reasons for downsizing and managerial
unemployment. She coaches managers about these explanations in both private
sessions and group meetings. She encourages clients to read from
Transition, Inc.'s library of books and articles, many of which delineate
structural analyses of economic change. She does so because she believes
that her clients will successfully negotiate the transition if they fully
understand the magnitude of the changes in the workplace. <...>
Confronted simultaneously with structural theories that offer absolution
and individualistic solutions that reinscribe self-blame, managers often
experience feelings of anger, despair, beleaguerment, and defeat. An
important focus for counselors is to teach clients how to psychologically
manage those feelings. To this end, the constant message is that managers
must be vigilant about the image they present to others. They must find
ways to creatively expel their anger and despair in order to cultivate a
confidant, upbeat image of sure-footed success.
One important forum in which this occurs is the Monday Network, a weekly
support group sponsored by Transitions, Inc. Linda serves as moderator,
calling on participants to discuss the status of their job search and to
"share problems or concerns" with the other members of the group.
Participants listen to one another, offer advice, and share job leads and
networking contacts. Perhaps most importantly, the support group serves as
a venue in which clients learn they are not the only casualties of
downsizing. As Shawn explained: "Going to the Monday morning quarterback
sessions is great. It reminds me that other quality people are in the same
boat. Knowing that helps keep me sane through all this."
During the Monday Network, Linda encourages clients to portray themselves
as self-assured and relaxed. She does not allow clients the opportunity to
dwell on or complain about their plight, even though they are invited to
"share problems and concerns." She actively discourages anyone who
criticizes the demise of job security or questions the new rules of
work--rules which she and her staff firmly insist are the "way of the
future." Linda and the other counselors make it clear that clients should
find other, less public outlets for "negative" emotions. The counselors
continually remind clients that bemoaning the loss of job security does
them absolutely no good. Job security promotes "mediocrity" and "is no
longer viable." Counselors also encourage clients to "let go of their
anger" toward their former employers, as well as toward the injustices of
the structural economic changes that are beyond their control. If they do
not, she insists, they will be viewed negatively by prospective employers:
"You will appear to be unable to move on with your life.
This is a signal to a potential employer that you are a
bad employment risk. In fact, many employers believe that
when a manager is angry about downsizing, it's a sign that
the potential employee is not a team player and not suited
for today's corporate culture."
Re-packaging the self, then, requires a constant monitoring of one's self
and one's emotions. While clients may feel angry, depressed, or desperate,
they must continually suppress these feelings and replace them with a
self-confident demeanor and present an image of success.
Clients at Transitions experience a contradiction. On the one hand, they
learn that the demise of the old social contract is a structural phenomenon
-- the result of increased global competition, technology, and new
management paradigms. They are continually exposed to this message at the
agency and more generally through the popular media and business press. It
is clear they understand these structural explanations for they are quite
capable of articulating them in both private interviews and in group
discussions with other clients.
On the other hand, counselors at Transitions also advocate strategies for
"managing the transition" by emphasizing the importance of individual
transformation. They learn, for example, that job security is an attribute
of the individual, a property which emerges from relentless
self-development. They learn that success in the job market requires that
they relinquish their belief in the reciprocity between loyalty and job
security. And, they learn that they must suppress dissatisfaction with the
new rules of work if they wish to successfully land a job.