Finding a job used to be simple. You’d show up at an office and ask for an application. A friend would mention a job in their department. Or you’d see an ad in a newspaper and send in your cover letter. Maybe you’d call the company a week later to check in, but the basic approach was easy. And once you got a job, you would stay—often for decades.
Now . . . well, it’s complicated. If you want to have a shot at a good job, you need to have a robust profile on LinkdIn. And an enticing personal brand. Or something like that—contemporary how-to books tend to offer contradictory advice. But they agree on one thing: 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.
That’s a radical transformation in how we think about work and employment, says Ilana Gershon. And with Down and Out in the New Economy, she digs deep into that change and what it means, not just for job seekers, but for businesses and our very culture. In telling her story, Gershon covers all parts of the employment spectrum: she interviews hiring managers about how they assess candidates; attends personal branding seminars; talks with managers at companies around the United States to suss out regional differences—like how Silicon Valley firms look askance at the lengthier employment tenures of applicants from the Midwest. And she finds that not everything has changed: though the technological trappings may be glitzier, in a lot of cases, who you know remains more important than what you know.
Throughout, Gershon keeps her eye on bigger questions, interested not in what lessons job-seekers can take—though there are plenty of those here—but on what it means to consider yourself a business. What does that blurring of personal and vocational lives do to our sense of our selves, the economy, our communities? Though it’s often dressed up in the language of liberation, is this approach actually disempowering workers at the expense of corporations?
Rich in the voices of people deeply involved with all parts of the employment process, Down and Out in the New Economy offers a snapshot of the quest for work today—and a pointed analysis of its larger meaning.
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Down and Out in the New Economy
How People Find (or Don't Find) Work Today
By Ilana Gershon
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
You Are Just like CocaCola
Selling Your Self through Personal Branding
A few years ago, I attended a workshop on personal branding with about a dozen undergraduates from Indiana University, who were, no doubt, wondering what I was doing there. The too-large room contained as many pizzas as people. Pepper, a Google recruiter who was leading the workshop, had brought them, clearly expecting a better turnout. But she wasn't intimidated by the empty room. In her midtwenties, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, she played music and was dancing around before the workshop began.
After we got started, Pepper asked us to spend thirty seconds introducing ourselves to one of the people sitting next to us. We then had to write down three words that we thought would describe our neighbor. I was a bit mortified that the slightly clueless but determinedly goodwilled undergraduate I chatted with decided to describe me as "sweet." I struggled to describe her. She had said such nondescript things about liking Bloomington and traveling to Boston for winter break. I ended up describing her as "earnest, curious, and tasteful."
After this exercise, Pepper explained that the reason she got her job at Google was related to this adjective game, an anecdote that was obviously part of her effort to convince her audience that fashioning a personal brand was now an essential part of searching for a job. In every personal-branding workshop I have attended, the instructor assumes audience members don't know what a personal brand is and are not already convinced that they need one. The first third or first half of every such workshop seems devoted to convincing the audience of the value of branding techniques.
Without openly reminding the audience that this was just as the financial crisis was unfolding, Pepper explained that she had interviewed at Google in 2008. After she got hired, she wondered why and asked a man who had been on the hiring team that interviewed her. He told her that he didn't remember the answers she had given during the interview, her GPA, or her resume. What caught his eye was that she was one of the most positive people he had ever met, and he knew that she not only would make his work life better but would be well-suited to a customer service position. "You didn't know this," he went on, "but I had actually just started at Google about three months before I had interviewed you. And I worked for an auto company in Detroit that was failing. The attitude at work was so negative that I had to leave. When I saw you, I knew that I wanted someone like you on my team." Pepper concluded her story: "So I didn't even get three adjectives from this man who had interviewed me. I got one. And that hands down is what got me my job at Google." For Pepper, this story demonstrated the unquestionable value of branding. I see things a bit differently.
Figuring out your personal brand involves deciding on the three or four words that capture your essence, that describe what personal-branding aficionados will call your authentic self. Personal branding as an idea may simply involve marketing yourself, but what exactly does marketing yourself involve? The idea is accompanied by very specific practices nowadays, ones that have evolved out of the strategies American advertisers first developed to brand commodities. Personal branding is different from making sure that you have a good reputation, although people may talk about personal branding and a reputation as interchangeable. With personal branding, and unlike managing your reputation, there are relatively standard techniques which career counselors and workshop leaders advocate that you use to figure out what self you should market, and equally standard practices for promoting your personal brand.
It is telling that both in Pepper's exercise and in her example, people are supposed to sense the words that underlie your personal brand without explicitly being told what these words are. You know that your brand is successful when the qualities you try to exude, encapsulated in the handful of words you have already selected for yourself, are then reflected back to you in the words people choose to describe you. For Pepper, the mark of her branding success was that she and her interviewer agreed that she was a positive person.
But when Pepper's interviewer was explaining why he hired her, he was actually reflecting on a complicated socioeconomic situation: the collapse of the automotive industry in the wake of the recession. Yet the only way it features in this story is as a commentary on the kind of emotional labor her interviewer would like his coworkers to perform. He wants to be surrounded by happy people, not people who are worried that a dire economic situation will lead to massive layoffs. Maybe his coworkers in Detroit would have been positive too if they had secure well-paying jobs. Branding encourages you to focus on a person's supposedly unchanging qualities and to ignore contexts.
Pepper is one of many people in the United States urging job seekers to begin developing a personal brand. There are any number of workshops for job seekers on crafting one's personal brand, and it is a common theme in self-help books and internet articles. At the same time, none of the hiring managers or recruiters whom I spoke to mentioned paying attention to applicants' personal brands. They talked about focusing on people's qualifications and worrying about whether a person could actually do the job for which he or she was hired. No one said "Well, I try to hire people with good personal brands," or described noticing any of the practices applicants are supposed to do to promote their personal brands. In fact, many of the screening mechanisms people use to select job candidates don't give any employer enough time to see most of the ways applicants will try to build personal brands.
As far as I could tell, personal branding was a concept and set of activities that career counselors and motivational speakers promoted, job seekers engaged with, and those hiring ignored. Yet whenever I was critical of personal branding in conversations with job seekers, they would defend the idea. What makes personal branding such a compelling concept nowadays for people who believe that anyone can get a job if they just use the right techniques?
I think it does a couple of things, neither of which is particularly helpful for job seekers. First, it is a logical (but not necessary) extension of how people currently think about the employment contract, a contract that no longer includes the promise of stable long-term employment. Second, it provides a set of prescriptive standardizing techniques for managing something that baffles many job seekers these days — constructing an online presence that signals to others that they are not only employable but desirable as a worker. But these standardizing techniques don't add much useful information for employers.
You Are Just like Coca-Cola
If people now need to manage themselves as though they are businesses, then it isn't that far of a stretch to think that a person can have a marketable image. Indeed, when Tom Peters first popularized the notion of personal branding, in 1997 in a Fast Company article titled "The Brand Called You," he insisted that we must now all brand ourselves because "we are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc." The logic seems to run as follows: if we are all now companies, then we have to start doing what companies do, including marketing ourselves. The possibility that people need a brand on the job market makes intuitive sense for people committed to seeing the hiring relationship as a business-to-business contract.
But once enough people in the United States think that it might be a good idea for every worker to have a brand, then another question immediately arises. How do you go about making one? Most marketers would probably say that this is extremely easy, that their techniques allow absolutely any kind of entity to be branded — sodas, vacation spots, companies, college experiences, countries, and people. What a marketer would do is take techniques developed for associating an object with a brand and then simply substitute a person. But it turns out that the ways in which a person is not like a commodity guarantee that people will face a range of relatively predictable problems when they try to brand themselves.
When advertisers develop a brand for an object, they try to endow it with a personality. A group of marketers might sit around a table trying to answer the question: if Diet Coke was a person, how would you describe that person? Once they have a list of adjectives, they then have to figure out how to imply these adjectives to a broad audience without actually uttering them. This supposedly is based on how people reveal their qualities persuasively. You might not be convinced by someone who openly tells you "I am a genius." As branding experts will tell you, all you have discovered is how they think of themselves. Yet if you witness them coming up with brilliant suggestions, you might be inclined to think of them as a genius. As an example, anthropologist Robert Moore describes how one woman teaching branding to her coworkers explained that brands function like a beautiful woman at a party. She does not walk into a room and loudly announce, "Everyone, I just want you to know that I am beautiful." Instead she projects this beauty, and if successful, everyone at the party associates her with this attribute.
As Celia Lury points out in Brands, in order for an object to have a personality, the branded object's personality has to be a collection of abstract traits. You have to believe that a personality does not depend on context. That is, you are not supposed to be hardworking only when you are in a workplace where you like your coworkers a lot and you have a task to do that you find fascinating — perhaps figuring out why a car always stalls. You are supposed to be hardworking in every situation. When a brand personality is associated with an object, it is a very abstracted and reduced notion of a personality. For example, Diet Coke is meant to be associated with a set of qualities regardless of the surrounding conditions, such as how it was stored or the context in which someone drinks the beverage. And an object's personality does not have to be based on a real person, but a generic idea of what a personality is. So these words don't apply to how someone is in a specific situation. In practice, the qualities are a fairly limited collage of generic characteristics.
Because branding depends on crafting a context-free personality, it can be used in unexpected ways and for unlikely populations. Ramina was a career counselor who explained to me at length why she thought branding was a profoundly influential strategy to teach men and women who had been recently released from jail and were looking for jobs. She had been involved in a project organized by parole officers geared toward helping their parolees navigate complicated and not-so-accepting job markets, a challenge she loved. Ramina thought branding encouraged them to see what value they had to offer others and to begin to appreciate the skills they inherently brought to any job. What was fascinating to me was that she took the techniques that personal branding requires, of separating personality from context, and asked parolees to reimagine their past experiences along these lines.
She told me how she did this. In her workshops, parole officers were lined up along the walls because having so many parolees in one room is considered dangerous. She would begin by asking everyone to talk about their skills. If a woman told Ramina that she was one of the best drug dealers in her neighborhood, Ramina would respond enthusiastically: "Let's take that illegal element out of it and let's focus on your skills. What did it take to make someone trust you over and over to come in and buy drugs from you?" The woman might explain how good she was with customer service — she was honest. If another parolee, say a man, wasn't a former drug dealer but a former drug user, Ramina would ask him how he knew which drug dealer to approach. He might tell her that he was particularly good at reading people, and she would encourage him to note that skill. Ramina asked parolees to distinguish between the conscious strategies they used to navigate a situation and what they were actually doing in that situation, the illegal activities. Because a brand personality is context free, it doesn't matter whether you are good at figuring out who is a trustworthy drug dealer or who is a trustworthy car salesperson. What is important is that you have a talent at determining who is trustworthy.
When people try to brand themselves, they are using techniques designed to associate an object with a personality, techniques that had to be radically simplified in order to be effective precisely because objects don't engage in the world in the complex ways that people do. Diet Cokes aren't moody when talking to an ex-boyfriend and relieved and happy after getting a good performance review at work. Even in Ramina's version, branding oneself is a simplifying exercise in which one ignores all the reasons that one might be using one's particular abilities in the first place. She has to teach her students approaches for ignoring the context in which they were acting and for focusing on a specific way of interpreting their actions — something her students may never have done before. In general, many of the difficulties that people experience in trying to brand themselves come from the fact that they are using techniques developed to associate objects with personalities, and, to be effective, these techniques have to distort what a person's personality is often understood to be.
When Do Objects Need Personalities?
This raises another question: why would objects need human personalities in the first place to appeal to consumers? It turns out that companies started to link objects to personalities when mass-manufactured goods became widespread in the United States. Companies were trying to reassure customers who were more comfortable buying goods from trusted shopkeepers who sold undifferentiated merchandise (for example, a pound of sugar or a bushel of corn). For the most part, these goods were provided by local producers — customers might have gone to church with the farmer who grew the corn that they ate.
Historian Bruce Schulman writes about the rise of product brands, describing how the rise of mass-manufactured goods significantly altered people's shopping experiences from the 1890s onward. He points out that before the 1890s, people purchased goods from sellers whom they knew — the local pharmacist compounding his own medicines, the peddler who came every six months, the local grocer who bought his produce from neighboring farms. They also bought tomato sauce or cough syrup, not Heinz's ketchup or Lydia Pinkham's cough syrup. They knew the tomato sauce would be good because, perhaps, they knew the shopkeeper's wife was following her mother's recipe, and her mother had a local reputation for making the best in town.
In the 1890s, consumers had to learn how to trust new supply chains and new producers. Shoppers began to encounter goods that were differentiated because they were associated with a particular company, not a local shopkeeper or local farmer. People increasingly had access to large department stores, and even local dry goods stores began to stock a range of mass-manufactured items. These items were packaged, which often hid the product from view and touch.
Wider distribution, longer supply chains, and packaging all combined to create a quandary for consumers — how could they know that the goods they were buying were of good quality?
Companies decided to mimic the personal relationships consumers had developed with local shopkeepers, and created recognizable and vivid figures to accompany the products. Schulman writes: "National advertising campaigns testified to the purity of products in a market where fears of adulterated goods ran rampant. Recognizable trademarks and packages became old friends, easing the transition to a brave new world of commerce. Some manufacturers even created characters, asking customers to write with questions, recipes, and problems. In the early twentieth century, providing companies with a brand personality was literal in a different sense than it is today. The companies were not ascribing a set of abstract personal qualities to an object. Instead, they were providing a corporate character, early precursors to characters such as Aunt Jemima or Mr. Clean, to take the symbolic place of the local producer or shopkeeper and thus reassure consumers. Brand personalities alluded to the complex histories and familiarity that consumers had with individual sellers, encouraging them to create similar ties and thus similar forms of loyalty to a company producing a broad range of mass-manufactured products.
Nowadays, the idea of buying mass-manufactured goods is much more commonplace, and consumers no longer have the same concerns about how to find a company and its products trustworthy. Instead, consumers may have a different set of concerns about supply chains and companies' reliability, especially if they are interested in fair labor practices or environmental pollution. Yet people still encounter the vestiges of these older corporate attempts at reassuring customers through the ways that brands today are intertwined with personalities.
Excerpted from Down and Out in the New Economy by Ilana Gershon. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface: A Book about Advice, Not an Advice Book
Introduction: The Company You Keep
1 You Are Just like Coca-Cola: Selling Your Self through Personal Branding
2 Being Generic—and Not—in the Right Way
3 Getting Off the Screen and Into Networks
4 Didn’t We Meet on LinkedIn?
5 Changing the Technological Infrastructure of Hiring
6 The Decision Makers: What It Means to Be a Hiring Manager, Recruiter, or HR Person
7 When Moving On Is the New Normal
Conclusion: We Wanted a Labor Force but Human Beings Came Instead