Friday, 14 October 2016

‘Go getters’ who go get lunch – Vulnerable self-employment and social policy

The ‘gig economy’, ‘uberisation’, ’portfolio careers’ – these are just three of the buzzwords or phrases that are used to capture a profound change in how people work, build a career (or: develop a profession, for those who baulk at the idea of having ‘a career’), develop a sense of self and personal identity, and gain the income to buy all the goods and services on which depends and appears to depend a good living standard.

Despite all differences between these and other labels, they share the assumption that the traditional form of employment, encapsulated in the idea of a long working life in the profession for which one was educated and trained, with a comfortable retirement as final phase, is bound to become a rarity, both longed for by some thanks to the stability it offers, and dreaded by others because of the ‘iron cage’ of a narrow, predetermined path through life it represents.

It matters little in this context that this ‘traditional form of employment’ (that has had its undeniable shortcomings and that should not be glorified too much as part of a general nostalgia for the so-called ‘golden age’ of the three post-war decades) is a very young invention, strongly tied to the model of industrial and post-industrial welfare capitalism that dominated the second half of the 20th century; an invention that therefore not surprisingly runs out of steam at precisely the moment when, on the one hand, the post-war approach to social protection is more and more undermined and questioned, while on the other hand the sustainability of a globalised capitalist order appears as increasingly doubtful, not only because of the enormous social and environmental damages it causes but also because it fails to produce the gains for the many on which its legitimacy is built.

In this particular setting, enter the idealised personality type of our current period: the entrepreneurial self (Bröckling, 2016), the person who understands that to have a ‘good life’, it takes continued individual efforts, constant mobilisation, personal investment and high flexibility, in order to deal with all the challenges and to seek all the opportunities that life offers. In other words, a person who relies primarily on themselves to succeed, ignoring the core insight from any introductory sociology course that humans are intrinsically social beings that are defined by their surroundings, and thrive most within a collective.

While this ideal serves as beacon and goal for everyone, its demands are particularly challenging for an increasing share of the working population: To juggle different (more or less paid) jobs and projects and hence manage a ‘portfolio career’, to be presentable and attractive to new clients in the ‘gig economy’, and to secure a decent income from ‘uberised’ jobs, in other words jobs that have none of the protections that ‘traditional’ full-time employment offered and still offers, being highly active in such an individualised sense is a core requirement. It no longer suffices to sell one’s labour force and to be competent, it now is essential to sell one’s entire personality, to show prospective buyers not just professional skills but also the right attitude of a proper ‘go getter’ – even if one just goes to get someone their lunch by driving around on a bike through a polluted city.

Legally, many of these ‘new’ jobs (that could also be called ‘old’ jobs, harking back to the times of day labour) fall into the realm of self-employment, even though this categorisation can be and is contested, like in the case of Deliveroo, purveyor of a fashionable form of ‘meals on wheels’ for the busy urbanite. Being self-employed conveys a sense of autonomy, but also the risk of self-exploitation and weak or non-existent social protection or benefits, such as sick pay or paid leave. In the context of a steep rise in self-employment in the UK over the last years, we can observe an increased share of those who either just get by (as indicated by the median income having fallen much steeper for the self-employed than for employees) or are bogusly self-employed (because they have only one client, often their former employer who found a neat way of liberating themselves from any responsibility of the employee’s or worker’s well-being and the reproduction of their labour force). It is these self-employed, who are living under precarious material conditions while being asked to take full personal responsibility for their fate, that my colleague Kevin Caraher and I have defined as most vulnerable.

But beyond the personal circumstances of the vulnerable self-employed, one essential question emerges: Given that all markets are inevitably social constructs, developing out of legal, cultural and political arrangements, and considering that the labour market is one of the most complex and hence most heavily regulated markets, what is the role of social policy in determining the contours of the outlined employment context? What kind of support is provided to the vulnerable self-employed, and to what extent do welfare agencies encourage or even push unemployed persons into self-employment, either by providing incentives or by creating a punitive environment (as it is so powerfully depicted in the latest masterpiece by Ken Loach ‘I, Daniel Blake’) from which the status of self-employment is seen as a viable escape route. In short, how is self-employment structured by social policy interventions and how do these interact with economic changes?

A vast research agenda, but one worth pursuing, as it will help to shed light not only onto the ‘nature’ of work in the 21st century, but also onto how state power is used to protect, support and emancipate as well as to discipline, guide and penalise individuals.

Enrico Reuter – follow me on Twitter @ReuterEnrico

Broeckling, U. (2016). The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject. London: Sage.