Inflated Employability

One hundred years ago, a potential worker could still offer his labor-power in a market in which basic human skills such as strength and agility had some (albeit constantly diminishing) value. Today’s mega-corporations, unlike their 19th century predecessors, not only command and (temporarily) conscript their employees, but demand highly specific, often techno-scientific, skills. In order to be “employable”—i.e., to offer “marketable skills” in a constantly automating and downsizing economy—today’s potential corporate-serf must obviously submit to all the demanded requirements.

Moreover, unlike the 19th century miner or factory worker, today’s would-be employee must first carefully predict ahead of time what skills corporations will demand several years’ hence—taking into consideration, as well, the possible ratio of applicants to “demand,” possible recessions, possible near-term obsolescence of skills acquired, ad infinitum. Notwithstanding the prevalence of mind-deadening “service” jobs, it goes without saying that today’s specialized, hi-tech jobs are also rarely more fulfilling in human terms than the monotonous labor-tasks of the factory floor (which Adam Smith himself deplored as alienating and mind-destroying).

Of course, mandatory school attendance in childhood already inculcates basic skills and attitudes preparatory to eventual induction into a disciplined, hierarchical workforce: obedience, docility, punctuality, calculation, accuracy, orderliness, and “cooperative” teamwork-skills. However, should the eager potential employee offer only these basic skills, she will mostly likely be rejected—unless she can find a job scanning barcodes and repeating the mantra “Have a great day” 300 times a day. (Modest progress in work conditions: in the 1980s, such workers in retail sales were required to say “Have a nice day,” with all the suitably ingratiating demeanor implicit in the job description. This form of self-alienation, more damaging than the stunting of the worker’s creativity, requires a counterfeit display of human feeling.)

No, full “marketability” today obviously requires not only a college degree, but a degree in “practical” subjects such as information technology, petroleum engineering, hotel management, marketing and finance, and so forth. Young people are told to enthusiastically prepare themselves, borrowing large sums for the “privilege” of such training. (As of 2011, U.S. student loan debt has exceeded $1 trillion.) Their foremost goal of life: Longterm Employability.
Of course, even upon completing such a course of training—with the massive acquisition of debt involved—the young person must still compete for limited job openings through relentless “self-marketing” (and, if indicated, additional degrees and/or training). But finally, after years of costly preparation and personality “adjustments,” there is still no guarantee of employment–let alone, secure, longterm employment. Yet, if the degree-holder presents a suitable appearance and manages a favorable “impression,” she may indeed eventually be hired: to perform a specified set of tasks, during a specified 40-60 hours per week (plus unpaid hours at home with the laptop and cellphone)–for as long as her performance is favorably assessed (and her services are needed–for the bottom-line).

Even so, with the relentlessly profit-driven trends of automation, downsizing and, increasingly, outsourcing, this “highly-trained” worker may still suddenly find herself “de-skilled” or otherwise disposable: dumped into the surplus-labor pool. Karl Marx famously referred to the “reserve army” of the unemployed—its number swollen during the periodic recessions which inevitably succeed overproduction. Today, as unemployed young people are in effect forced into military deployment (the “poverty draft”), this concept has become all-too-literal. In terms of jobs, war is evidently one of the only burgeoning growth-industries. Back in the Homeland, the demands of “internal-security” offer some job openings for a limited number of citizens, as law-enforcement and anti-terrorism personnel, prison guards—or prison inmates.

So, young people, after at least sixteen years of preparatory “education” to enter the “workforce” and “earn a living,” are left with uncertain prospects at best and, as looming possibilities, being offshored, de-skilled or automated into obsolescence. The “lucky” ones will enjoy the distinction of longterm servitude, performing functions with little relation to their personal creative inclinations. But it is a “do-it-yourself” servitude, in which the potential employee must undergo (and pay for) several years of preparation even to be worthy of the chance for such drudgery.
The (increasingly rare) “privilege” to be employed—with little if any longterm job security—has become simply the 21st century version of economic slavery. Union-busting and persisting high unemployment guarantee a “disciplined,” even cowed, workforce. True, people are not quite reduced to items of exploitable property, labor-machines to be used-up and then sold or discarded. True, employees, unlike field slaves, may reject the “terms of employment” and seek work elsewhere. But such “freedom” matters little when jobs are scarce, and employees, if anything, fear being suddenly replaced by cheaper, overseas labor or new (“labor-saving”) technologies. Those urgently in need of a paycheck are forced to accept whatever terms and requirements are dictated: degrees, specialized training, excessive workload, diminishing “benefits”—or, increasingly today, part-time or temporary work with no benefits. Nonetheless—to paraphrase Malcolm X—today’s underpaid (white-collar) “house slaves,” often entirely indoctrinated to identify with the interests of their corporate masters, will often vote Republican and strive to distance themselves from the downwardly mobile “field slaves” more directly and immediately confronted with degrading and insecure conditions of employment.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.