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There is something new about unemployment today

Summary:
Fred Zimmerman  (originally a comment) Taken together, the chapters of Anthropologies of Unemployment, New Perspectives on Work and Its Absence, edited by Jong Bum Kwon and Carrie M. Laneby reveal that there is something new about unemployment today. It is not a temporary occurrence, but a chronic condition. In adjusting to persistent, longstanding unemployment, people and groups create new understandings of unemployment as well as of work and employment; they improvise new forms of sociality, morality, and personhood. Ethnographic studies such as those found in Anthropologies of Unemployment are crucial if we are to understand the broader forms, meanings, and significance of pervasive economic insecurity and discover the emergence of new social and cultural possibilities. Everyone

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Fred Zimmerman  (originally a comment)

Taken together, the chapters of Anthropologies of Unemployment, New Perspectives on Work and Its Absence, edited by Jong Bum Kwon and Carrie M. Laneby reveal that there is something new about unemployment today. It is not a temporary occurrence, but a chronic condition. In adjusting to persistent, longstanding unemployment, people and groups create new understandings of unemployment as well as of work and employment; they improvise new forms of sociality, morality, and personhood. Ethnographic studies such as those found in Anthropologies of Unemployment are crucial if we are to understand the broader forms, meanings, and significance of pervasive economic insecurity and discover the emergence of new social and cultural possibilities.

Everyone (media to the ordinary person in the street) make up “what ifs” to help us see and make sense of the unexamined assumptions embedded in the media headlines about unemployment we encounter every day. One of the major strengths of the anthropological approach to studying culture is precisely this exercise of situating the seemingly mundane and taken-for-granted in its wider context. To understand what unemployment means, why it happens, and how it feels, we need to consider it within its appropriate context.

Ethnographic work is a big part of this effort. Ethnographic subjects are varied. Young and old, male and female, immigrant and native-born, of varying races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some continue to look for paid employment; others face such structural and social obstacles that being unemployed has, in many respects, become their daily work. Yet all are unemployed or underemployed, and thus—despite the many differences between them—they share the experience of economic, cultural, and even bodily disenfranchisement. In all cases the consequences of unemployment are long-lasting, affecting social and familial relationships, personal wealth, self-identity, and mental and physical health well after re-employment (if any). People do not simply recover; their worlds do not just return to normal. But the ways in which their worlds change, and the ways in which they remain the same, vary dramatically across contexts. Juxtaposing ethnographic accounts of unemployment across a variety of regions, professions, and populations also allows us to identify common themes and experiences without reducing the significance of the intersection of gender, class, age, race, and citizenship in specific cultural contexts.

In the United States, the foundational culture of employment has been shaken to the point of collapse. Unemployed Americans have tended to become visible, if merely temporarily, only in times of depression and recession, during which they are often perceived as threats to normative values and behaviors (Denning 2010, 79). The presumption has been that full-time, formal employment (at least for males) is the normal socioeconomic condition; conversely, unemployment is understood to be abnormal and temporary, despite economic evidence to the contrary, stretching as far back as the Great Depression in the 1930s. Yet in recent years stories of the long-term unemployed have been shared across popular media, from traditional news outlets to interactive news sites and popular blog networks. They tell of personal feelings of grief, confusion, and indignation; broken marriages and families; social isolation and alienation; shattered identities and lost self-esteem; and deteriorating health and well-being. While there are exceptions (stories of strengthened marital and family bonds, of reprioritized social values, of recommitments to religious life, and of those who have not been affected at all), most narratives describe the social and personal costs of prolonged joblessness.

Through the 1960s secure cradle-to- grave employment was considered the just reward of loyal and hard-working organization men. In the latter part of the century an alternative model of career started to emerge, one that emphasized flexibility over predictability and, in its spaciousness, left decidedly more room for individual workers to chart their own unique paths to professional success. These “protean careers,” a term coined by management expert Douglas T. Hall in the 1970s, were designed to be both self-directed and personally satisfying. Rather than allowing an employer to decide one’s career trajectory it was left up to the individual to plan whether and how one might advance one’s personal and professional interests (Hall 1976). This new model was allegedly designed to serve employers and employees alike, creating more fulfilled and productive workers. In this new envisioning, stable employment was actually the enemy of individual freedom. A perspective that meshed beautifully with the neoliberal principles and policies gaining cultural traction at that same moment in American history. As one executive put it, “To give my employees job security would be to disempower them and relieve them of the responsibility that they need to feel for their own success” (Ross 2003,17). And this, of course links employment and unemployment with the current crises of American culture and society. The culture now teaches Americans to take pride in and responsibility for one’s individual career rather than the wellbeing of society and our common culture. This is a recipe for cultural and then societal collapse. As if that was news to anyone at the current juncture in US history.

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