As I come to the end of my PhD is has become time for me to re-enter the job market. I have cast out tentative lines, seeing what is out there, seeing what I could be qualified for. Like Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea, my fishing bucket remains empty. This has caused me to once again evaluate what it means to be ‘employable’ in late capitalism.
In our twenty first century capitalism there is now a strong arrangement in which the state and employers are no longer committed, nor even deemed responsible for providing people with lasting and secure employment. In the rise of the casual worker, it rests on the individual to take the initiative to relentlessly develop new abstract skills, and also be flexible and adaptable. This has apparently become a key part of national, organization and individual prosperity. This in turn has led to a push for ‘self-realization’ in the job marketplace in effort to become more employable and this realization has actually become a prerequisite for the employability of a job seeker. This would also go some way to explain the rise of job coaching services and self-help books.
Contemporary discourses of employability are premised on the promise that the subject is both empowered and alienated – we are both succumboing to the demands of employers, but somehow not giving them control over our self or destiny. In reality it is a powerful way of disciplining the modern worker. As the dream to become the full realization of our employable selves is impossible, the desire to become more and more employable takes over but by reinforcing capitalist values of profit, flexibility and the power of the employers. Therefore, employability becomes the hegemonic discourse for structuring our identity around an unachievable self mastery within the alienating labour market.
Individuals, whether employed or not, are called upon to develop new and innovative ways to outstrip others in the pursuit of, what in all likelihood will be, an unrealizable, ideal ‘employable self’. Moreover, ‘employability’ has been invoked as a path towards social integration for marginal groups to use their own gumption to step out of their ‘idleness’. However, this attractive picture of employability, as used by employers, recruitment agents, policy-makers, mainstream research, universities, and the media, says little about how concerns with employability interlink with broader societal changes, structural issues and the ways in which individual subjectivities are affected.
The idea of workers’ initiative to create employability downplays the structural issues on the labor market and access and inequalities as well as individualizing broader social problems. The individual is made responsible for their employment, and not finding appropriate employment is seen as laziness. It is similar to century old ideas of the idle poor, except now we have a multitude of institutions and programs to enable people, and if these fail then clearly it must be because of a defect in the job seeker. Yet, more often than not, unemployment is the result of structural factors that are covered up by the individual responsibility to employability. It is doubly insidious in that the rhetoric of making oneself employable is exclusively positive.
In reality individuals have little control over their relation to organizational and economic discourses. In other words, ones identity is determined by ones own values that are constructed by cultural ideas of the marketplace and managers. This becomes a subjective form of self-alienation in which our subordination to capital becomes seen as an independent and personal value. Our desire for employment, and our every lasting employability is in a way a futile quest for freedom in which we always need to meet the just our of reach desire of our masters of capital. Even when armed with comprehensive skills we are still beholden to capitalist demands, often finding that we can never be employable enough.
Further, these values in which we chase are not just a means to an end in finding employment, but more and more shape how we view our empowerment and therefore our future identity. This raises a deep irony in which our seeking of capitalist empowerment is central to our own exploitation and material alienation. As Lacan has argued, it is the discourse we are subject to, not the subject which has the autonomy. To put it another way the hegemonic set of values organizes our subjectivity and hence conscious identification.
To further use Lacan, the possibility of achieving fulfilment, which often is looked for in employment as an innate sense of lack, through a symbolic command of a ‘Big Other’ is an alienating activity. This is a scenario in which a subject misrecognizes their selfhood with their perceived autonomous ego in which the ego ideal is culturally constructed. This idealized self-image motivates the subject, creating a way for individuals to imagine their autonomy. Yet, this autonomous process is an illusionary one. A desire, not a reality. This highlights the paradox central to identity and alienation: the more one seeks to overcome alienation through a socially provided identity the more alienated one ultimately becomes. In this manner, psychological stability is kept up not in achievement, but in the eternally disappointing pursuit of unachievable identities. Identity, according to Žižek therefore exists ‘in a kind of curved space – the nearer you get to it, the more it eludes your grasp (or the more you possess it, the greater the lack)’.
Current discourses of employability, whereby the underlying demand on individuals to conform to the bosses desire are interlaced with personal aspirations for professional autonomy and control, reflect this complex and often quite ironic relation of alienation and self-mastery in the construction of identity. Yet it also shows how this subjective paradox of alienation plays itself out in contemporary in relation to processes of material alienation. More precisely, the more one strives to be ‘non-alienated’ through a fantasy of employability the more subjectively and materially alienated one becomes as a capitalist subject. As Lukacs has argued, the worker’s ‘own labour becomes something objective and independent of him, something that controls him by virtue of an autonomy alien to man’. What Lukacs’ insight is, is that our subjective alienation is a by-product of the material alienation of being a wage laborer. In our modern capitalism, it is through the promise of eliminating our subjective alienation that our material alienation is reinforced.
Discourses of employability reflect this emerging paradoxical relation between subjectivities of self-mastery and alienation. Most notably, at a deeper level of subjectivity, they create a scenario in which the only way to secure self-hood is to embrace an identity in conformity with employee desires. This continual imperative to enhance one’s employability serves as a framework for seeing the ‘world out there’ by simplifying complexities and contradictions in order to effectively guide actions in a neo-liberal economic environment marked by unpredictability and insecurity. Yet they also reflect the inherently alienating character of this identification. In essence, the present day subject is offered the option of ‘be what organizations desire or be nothing’.
Thus, selfhood becomes inexorably connected to the insatiable demand to improve one’s ‘employability’, in order to obtain greater personal and professional freedom and satisfaction. It reflects how efforts to ‘take control’ of one’s identity, to be this elusive ‘authentic self’ are necessarily linked to better meeting the expectations of one’s present and future employers. Discourses of creating an employable self portray the conformity to capitalist values and managerial prerogatives as an enticing but elusive opportunity to exert control over your life, even if only fleetingly, through becoming eternally more ‘employable’.
By making oneself more employable, better suited to meet the needs of management, one is supposedly increasing their power of self-determination. The irony once again makes itself clear. Workers are promised the ability to be masters of themselves, by being flexible to and subsuming to employers changing demands. This apparently obvious contradiction is understood when we view economic exploitation as a way of increasing ones ‘self-actualization’ through increasing your ability to exploit yourself.
However, it appears this ironic struggle to be our best employable desires is exactly that – like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill – a futile one in which we can never exploit ourselves enough. This is further compounded by the employee’s drive to find ways in which to benefit their current or future employer, but under the idea it is for their own advantage. This opens up the contradiction between the alienating discourses of capital with the unrealistic dream of self-mastery being the way to achieve more alienation. This paradoxical empowerment has expanded into a broader discourse of organizational and political ‘freedom’, in which the contemporary subject is progressively fighting for his or right to be enhance their employability and therefore ironically their subjective and material alienation. We therefore can observe a situation in which our drive to be employable creates citizens who are constantly flexible to the demands of capital. It is a world in which the individual takes responsibility for being employable instead of being part of a collectively planned future. This also has the outcome of past labour demands of ‘full employment’ being shifted to calls for better ‘employability’ by access to private run training or the like.
This all seems quite bleak, but by understanding the nature of our employee relations in late capitalism it seeks to think about providing foundations for moving beyond this fantasy. Contu (2008), inspired by Žižek, promotes a form of resistance by which individuals are willing to engage in acts that defy the symbolism and enjoyment associated with their current identities. Also, Cremin (2010) discusses using the desire for non-alienation to break free from managerial demands. Yet it is exactly these desires that can paradoxically deepen individual’s subjective and material alienation as present day capitalist subjects. Perhaps a way of thinking about breaking our self-created chains comes from constructing new fantasies in which the overt managerialism is rejected for discourses of new, egalitarian values. As capitalism flounders from crisis to crisis, new ideas of the ‘commons’ are coming to fore in large social protests and movements. Indeed, although the vote in Switzerland was rejected, calls for the limiting of bosses pays and also for a living wage and full employment are back on the radar in Europe. We need to shift our demands away from the discourse of employability and the romanticized vision of work, in which one can be the master of one’s own alienation and individual responsibility into collective notions of suitable work.