Selected recent texts and publications.
Re-Valueing the Self (Sharon (MIT) and Vasquez)
Workforce Development Policies (co-author)
The Dilemma of Ruminating
Finding Work in America
Re-Valuating the Self
Sharon (MIT) and Vasquez
The Problem with Medical Entertainment
Making Medical Decisions
Six years after the official end of the Great Recession long-term unemployment in the U.S. remains at levels unseen in at least seven decades (Van Horn et al. 2014). In addition to financial devastation, a well-established literature shows that long-term unemployment poses one of the most difficult contemporary challenges to health and wellbeing (e.g., Paul & Moser, 2009, Strully 2009; Sullivan and Wachter 2009). A line of studies specifically focusing on unemployed white-collar American workers reveal that a key mechanism undermining wellbeing is self-devaluation and the internalization of stigma with many long-term unemployed workers feeling shame and fearing that “something is wrong” with them (Newman 1999, Smith 2001, Sharone 2013, Cottle 2001, Uchitelle 2006). Sharone (2013) also shows that currently dominant self-help support institutions can intensify this self-devaluation by framing career challenges as largely within the control of the job seeker and thus activate individualistic narratives of labor market outcomes. This paper examines whether an alternative approach to support based on mutualistic and sociologically-oriented discourses and practices may help address the challenge posed to the wellbeing of long-term unemployed workers by activating narratives focused on the shared and structural roots of unemployment.
In the American context one determinant of the viability of mutualistic and sociologically-oriented support (which for brevity we refer to as “soc-mu support”) depends on the relationship between currently prevailing self-help support and the broader culture of individualism. If self-help’s emphasis on the role of individuals simply mirrors a ubiquitous and coherent broader culture of individualism (Newman 1999) then it is unlikely that local alternative support institutions could counter self devaluation unless accompanied by broad and fundamental cultural change. Yet, research in the sociology of culture reveals that American culture is multifaceted, containing a mixture of individualistic, mutualistic, and structural narratives, and that concrete institutions play a critical in activating certain cultural narratives to motivate daily practices and frame subjective understandings of outcomes (e.g., Swidler 2001, Bellah et al. 1985). Building on this sociology of culture literature we explore the mechanisms by which soc-mu support may reduce job seekers’ self-devaluation and enhance social resilience (Hall and Lamont 2013). We consider whether soc-mu support that fosters the recognition of the shared nature of the long-term unemployment experience, and the underlying role of social and economic institutions, can counteract the debilitating internalization of stigma and generate a re-valuation of the self.
Unemployment and Support Institutions
The day-to-day experience of long-term unemployment is of repeated employer rejections. This experience is mediated and framed by job search support discourses and practices disseminated through books, videos, workshops, support organizations, and coaching services. In the U.S. the self-help model of support is currently dominant (McGee 2005, Lane 2011, Sharone 2013). It encourages job seekers to see themselves as in control of their career destinies and deemphasizes the role of factors outside job seekers’ immediate control such as labor market institutions (Newman 1999, Ehrenreich 2005, Lane 2011, Smith 2001). For example, Sharone’s (2013 p.45) ethnography of a self-help organization for unemployed professionals found that the organization’s central message was: “Take control . . . The main barrier is yourself, not the government, not the market, it’s you.” Any job seeker skepticism about their degree of control is preempted by the claim that skepticism reflects a negative attitude and is a form of self-sabotage. Moreover, under the self-help model of support job seekers are expected only to display a positive attitude and keep to themselves the emotional toll of long-term unemployment (Ehrenreich 2005, Lane 2011, Smith 2001, Sharone 2013). Self-help’s twin focus on individual control and positive attitude exacerbate self-devaluation and emotional isolation by systematically de-emphasizing the shared and institutional roots of labor market obstacles and of the resultant emotional crisis (Sharone 2013, Smith 2001).
These shortcomings in the self-help support model raise a research question of great urgency: Is the dominance of self-help inevitable or are other models of support viable in the American cultural context? Self-help is currently the most common mode of support; yet, the sociology of culture literature suggests that the institutionalization of self help should not be viewed as a passive mirroring an all powerful and coherent American culture of individualism but as a selective activation of particular cultural narratives from among multiple available narratives (Swidler 1986, 2001, Bellah et al. 1985). While self-help draws upon discourses which have been part of America’s collective cultural toolkit for centuries, American individualism is not a singular all-powerful force but exists in the American culture alongside other more mutualistic and solidaristic narratives such as “we are all in this together,” as well as sociological discourses of the structural roots of negative labor market outcomes.
By examining the effects of mutualistic and sociologically-informed support discourses and practices we build on the work of Hall and Lamont (2013 p.2); specifically focusing on how institutions may facilitate “social resilience,” defined as the “capacity of groups of people” facing similar conditions to “sustain and advance their well-being in the face of challenges to it.” For individuals facing an assault on their sense of self from the workings of economic and social institutions the key question is “whether they have at their disposal alternative repertoires for evaluating themselves” (ibid. 2013 p.18). Unlike psychological approaches to resilience that emphasize individual qualities or resources, the concept of social resilience focuses on “institutional and cultural resources that groups and individuals mobilize to sustain their well-being,” (ibid p.2) specifically, by making available repertoires that “foster resilience by feeding the capacity of individuals to maintain positive self-concepts; dignity and a sense of including, belonging and recognition” (Lamont et al. 2013. p.130).
The availability of alternative repertoires of self-evaluation is necessary but not sufficient. Social resilience also requires an institutional context that activates narratives of the shared and structural underpinnings of the challenges one is facing. As Hall and Lamont (2013 p.14) recognize resilience is not something that passively happens but requires action:
Social resilience is the result of active processes of response. Groups do not simply call passively on existing sets of resources.Social resilience is the product of a much more creative process in which people assemble a variety of tools, including collective resources and new images of themselves, to sustain their well-being in the face of social change.
Swidler (2001) shows the critical role of institutions in accounting for the activation of narratives, explaining that “even when each individual’s worldview taken as a whole may seem incoherent
. . . consistent patterns appear in the culture of many individuals when they all confront similar institutional constraints” (Swidler 2001, p. 134). Or, as Lamont et al. (2013 p.136) put it, institutions help us understand “why individuals are more likely to draw on one script rather than another.”
For long-term unemployed workers the needed institutional context to foster social resilience is likely one that is diametrically opposite the institutionalized self-help focus on individual control. We hypothesize that facilitating social resilience requires institutions that elucidate the limits of individual control and the structural nature of obstacles. This hypothesis is rooted in a growing literature that suggests that recognition of structural barriers provides protection from the assault on the self that comes with challenges like unemployment. Examining this literature Hing (2013 p.173) shows that for members of a stigmatized group being aware of potential barriers to employment, such as employer discrimination, means that when facing negative outcomes they are less likely to blame themselves and suffer a blow to their sense of self. For example, Major et al. (2003) found that maintenance of self-esteem following employer rejections was much more likely among women who understood such negative outcomes as potentially the result of prejudicial attitudes toward women. Similarly, showing the importance of elucidating barriers, Stephens et al. (2014) reveals how an intervention to support first generation college students navigating university life is only effective when support resources are offered together with facilitating such students’ awareness of the structural and class-based roots of the obstacles they face.
In short, the sociology of culture and the social resilience literature, when applied to the context of long-term unemployment in the U.S., suggest both the viability of and need for support institutions that activate narratives of mutuality and structural obstacles to reduce self-devaluation and enhance wellbeing. This paper shows that such institutions of support can indeed affect the subjective experiences of unemployment in the American context. In-depth interviews suggest that alternative repertoires of self-evaluation are activated by institutionalized practices of support that illuminate external obstacles and facilitate recognition of the shared nature of the unemployment experience, and such recognition can enhance social resilience and lead to a re-valuation of the self.
Soc-Mu Support and Methodology
To explore the effects of soc-mu support for long-term unemployed workers we began by reaching out to the community of Boston area career coaches and counselors (which we will refer to collectively as “coaches”) using professional associations, e-mail listservs, and word-of-mouth. We invited coaches to attend meetings to discuss recent research about long term unemployment, including findings regarding employer discrimination against long-term unemployed job seekers and the emotional toll of long-term unemployment. At such meetings we also invited the coaches to participate in our research on the effect of support. Ultimately 42 coaches agreed to have us match them with long-term unemployed job seekers and to provide to them three months of free support. The coaches did not receive compensation for providing such support or for participating in our research but were motivated by the opportunity to help long-term unemployed workers directly through support and indirectly via research.
The coaches were not given any particular instructions with respect to the content of their substantive advice on job search strategies but were encouraged to depart from the self-help support model in two important respects. First, meetings with coaches focused on prior research on job seekers’ tendency to self-devaluate and how self-help support discourses emphasizing job seeker control exacerbate this tendency. Based on this research coaches were encouraged to avoid control discourses and openly acknowledge structural barriers to reemployment, including discrimination on the basis of unemployment duration. Open recognition of barriers was also directly communicated to job seekers by the researchers sharing findings from studies concerning unemployment discrimination during an in-person group meeting. Second, meetings with coaches emphasized and explained the emotional toll of long-term unemployment and how self-help support that only allows sharing of positive emotions can result in heightened emotional isolation. Based on this research coaches were encouraged to create support environments in which job seekers felt welcomed to share the full range of their emotional experiences. While some coaches initially hesitated to engage in support which sounded to them like “therapy” (which they felt unqualified to do), discussions with fellow coaches and the researchers clarified that the intent of this dimension of support is not inner-work or psychological analysis but creating a context which would allow the recognition of shared conditions and experiences, and which may activate narratives of mutuality and structural underpinnings to interpret of one’s unemployment.
To recruit long-term unemployed job seekers we reached out to Boston area career centers, networking groups, and libraries, and invited job seekers to sign up for the opportunity to receive free support and participate in research. Ultimately most of the job seekers who signed up to participate learned about the project from an article that appeared in the Boston Globe. Interested job seekers were asked to complete a short survey in order for us to determine whether they met the following criteria: (i) unemployed six months or longer, (ii) between the ages of 40-65, (iii) white-collar occupations, and (iv) looking for work in the Boston area. While over 800 job seekers signed up for the opportunity to receive free support only 125 met the criteria for participation. From among this 125 we randomly selected 100 to be matched with coaches to receive free support either in one-on-one or in small facilitated groups. The job seekers were 55% male and 45% female with a mean age of 54 and 27 years of work experience.
This paper draws on two sources of qualitative data. First, we examine the long-term unemployment experience and effect of soc-mu support through 63 in-depth interviews of 50 long-term unemployed job seekers who received support. These semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted either in-person or by telephone and lasted approximately 60-120 minutes each. We asked participants questions regarding their experience looking for work, the effect of unemployment on their wellbeing and personal relationships, and the effect of any support they had received up to this point. Second, all 100 of the long-term unemployed job seekers who received support responded to surveys that contained open-ended questions. Job seekers first completed an extensive initial survey about their career histories, job search activities, physical and emotional well-being, family relationships, and financial condition. Upon receiving support job seekers completed shorter weekly surveys which included open- ended questions about the support they received in the past week, their job search activities and their well-being. Job seekers were highly motivated to share their experiences with the researchers, as this participation was understood as reciprocation for receiving free support.
The Challenge of Long-Term Unemployment
To examine how soc-mu support may mediate the experience of long-term unemployment it is necessary to first describe briefly the most salient challenges of long-term unemployment for our research participants. We focus on elements of the experience that are specific to being long-term unemployed, the essence of which is a string of labor market rejections.
Long-term unemployed job seekers describe the job market as akin to a “black hole.” This metaphor conveys the utter lack of employer response to their applications despite the fact that such applications often require significant effort. Arnold describes the black hole as the “thing that really kills me.” He continues: “You never find out why you didn’t get it . . . What is it that you’re judging me on? . . . You just end up with this big void.” This void leaves it up to job seekers to interpret the reasons for their labor market difficulties, which frequently results in highly individualized accounts. Dan explains how creeping self-doubt fills the empty space. Like so many other job seekers, Dan experiences the job search as a roller coaster ride. Each application starts with excitement:
You see a new thing on the web, and you read the description … I’ll say, ‘That’s me! I can do all that.’ And the first thing you do is you hit the apply online button and you go through the whole application online … ‘Hey, I’m going to get that job because I’m the right guy for that job.’ Where it turns into a negative is when you don’t hear back anything . . . That’s the frustrating part and the part where you feel like you’re just going into a black hole . . . It makes you question yourself more because it makes you feel like your background, your experience is just not enough. It hits a lot of different buttons. It hits your self esteem. If you don’t hear anything it leaves you with self doubt and the self esteem thing gets hit.
Together with the hit to one’s sense of self often comes discouragement about continuing with the search. Becky explains the black hole experience as “deadening.” She continues: “I don’t know how else to say it. I guess that’s the best word I can think of. It sets you back. Makes it difficult to roll up your sleeves and try again.” In Gail’s case she became so discouraged by the lack of employer response that she completely ceased searching. She explains:
Gail: It’s horrible. It’s the most depressing thing I can think of . . . Once you send in a resume or a cover letter or go through the application process online, it’s this black box where you’re not sure what’s happening behind the scenes with your information. So it’s very depressing because either you get absolutely no response at all, or you get a computer generated message most of the time. That was probably one of the reasons that I … needed to walk away from it for a while. It was emotionally really bad. It was just very depressing and I couldn’t sustain the search.
Au: What makes you feel most discouraged?
Gail: Not getting any response at all. I would just get very discouraged and I would stop . . . Even though I had these feelings of desperation financially, I just didn’t have any confidence that anything I did for looking for a job was actually going to get me anywhere. I just didn’t think anybody cared to employ me, to be quite honest. I felt like my resume was going down a black hole.
Gail’s experience of the black hole and the resulting discouragement is typical for the long-term unemployed workers we interviewed. A month prior to this interview Gail had ceased her job search and therefore would be classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a “discouraged worker,” one of millions of Americans who have dropped out of the labor force at record levels since the Great Recession. The word “discouraged” implies that a worker stops looking because s/he perceives the likelihood of getting a job as low. This certainly captures part of the Gail’s experience but misses the core emotional dynamic which leaves job seekers feeling unworthy of a response. The void left by the black hole is filled with a personalized account, as Gail put it: no one “cared to employ me.”
The dispiriting black hole experience leads most job seekers to believe that their only chance of gaining employment is networking –understood as reaching out to one’s existing network of social contacts and forming new contacts to obtain referrals. Becky, who above described the black hole as “deadening,” explains that despite the fact that she has not networked much she perceives the utmost importance of networking for someone in her position:
I should be networking more than anybody else, not less . . . Especially for me, where I recognize I’ve been out so long. My chances of getting even an interview where I don’t have either a push or a recommendation or something from somebody who knows somebody at the employer, means that realistically my chances are very low, based on my resume alone.
Yet, the same black hole experience that leads job seekers to perceive it necessary to network also makes it harder to do. While feeling a need to increase the frequency of their social interactions most long-term unemployed job seekers report a decrease in interactions. Strikingly, an overwhelming majority of job seekers we interviewed reported a difficult time reaching out to precisely those contacts that they believe would be beneficial to landing a job, including previous colleagues or other employed friends. Job seekers’ reflections on this difficulty focus on their sense of lacking self worth, and certainly as less than these “successful” social contacts. Carl explained the difficulty of networking this way:
I don’t talk to my friends as much. I’m unemployed. I’m different than they are at this point. I think the hardest thing is this loss of the social prestige of just having a job. Now you’re just unemployed.
Deborah likewise explains the difficulty of connecting with others as rooted in the loss of status and self-devaluation:
I have self-flagellation . . . This is a fairly major yardstick that we all put against ourselves, our employment. We define ourselves partly by what we do. Right now I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me in terms of how I identify myself. I’m right back in high school and college, trying to find myself again.
Self-devaluation leads job seekers to perceive interactions with former colleagues and friends not as an exchange among equals but necessarily, and humiliatingly, focusing on their unemployed status. As Robert explained: “me being unemployed is like this hole in lots of things to talk about. People are saying, ‘How are you doing getting a job?’ It’s not a fun conversation.” Ruth elaborated how negative feelings about herself create an intense obstacle to interacting with others:
I don’t want to contact people, my friends. I’m embarrassed. I’m humiliated. I feel like a loser. And I don’t want to call anyone, I just don’t want to talk to anybody. . . I had very close friends, people that I worked with at [company name]. I mean seven years! I had friends there and I just don’t contact them.
It is precisely Ruth’s former colleagues who are likely to be her most effective networking contacts because they can vouch for her qualifications. Yet, these colleagues are emotionally difficult to approach because of internalized stigma—the fear of appearing like a “loser” among one’s professional peers. The reluctance to connect with others, including friends, not only makes it impossible to receive job search support such as referrals, but in many cases also entails severe social isolation.
Unemployed job seekers tend to become progressively more isolated over time. Isolation begins with the loss of coworkers that accompanies the loss of one’s job. Kevin describes the isolation as “the hardest thing.” When Kevin’s wife passed away several years ago the workplace became his primary location for social interaction. “I miss the guys. The voices. The ten minutes to get coffee . . . Their friendship.” But isolation is also an issue for those who are married. Mickey does not share his negative experiences with his wife because he has found that she is not supportive, often telling him “you are not doing enough.” This kind of spousal attitude becomes a source of additional intense emotional pain. As Mickey puts it: “What the hell? . . . [She] might think I’m not doing anything, but looking for job is more than 40 hours. You always have to be on. That’s a stress.” Other job seekers remain isolated in their experiences because they do not want to burden loved ones with their anxieties. Sam, for example, has not told his parents that he is unemployed, rhetorically asking: “Why do I need to have them worry about that? I don’t like to burden people with how I’m feeling.”
In short, the long-term unemployment experience of deepening self-devaluation and social withdrawal described above is generated by two types of filters: On the one hand, employers’ institutionalized filtering practices of silent rejections, and on the other hand, by job seekers’ cognitive filtering of negative labor market outcomes through the interpretive lens of individualizing narratives, which both generate, and are exacerbated by, social isolation. Soc-mu support aims to interrupt this dynamic by institutionalizing support experiences that breaks the isolation and facilitate a re-valuation of the self. Prior to receiving support 61 percent of the long-term unemployed professionals in our study agreed with the statement “I fear there is something wrong with me.” In a follow-up survey, after ten weeks of soc-mu support, the frequency of this response decreased to 41 percent. Consistent with these survey responses most of the job seekers we interviewed reported some degree of re-valuation of the self. The focus of the remainder of this paper is to understand the processes and mechanisms of re-valuation generated by soc-mu support.
Soc-Mu Support and the Mechanisms of Re-Valuation
Our interview data suggest that soc-mu support diminishes the internalization of stigma and facilitates a revaluation of the self through a number of mutually reinforcing mechanisms, including: 1) breaking job seekers’ emotional isolation which in turn normalizes the experience of negative feelings and self-doubt, 2) recognition that others in the same boat are meritorious but nonetheless shut out of the labor market, which creates an opening for revaluing one’s own merits and a non-individualized understanding of labor-market outcomes, 3) engaging in practices to construct a self-narrative of value, and 4) illumination of institutional barriers to finding a job and developing a structural understanding of the search process which further de-individualizes outcomes. Reflexivity about structural and shared conditions not only make possible a re-valued self but as a consequence of re-valuation counters job search discouragement and allows for more effective engagement in difficult job search practices such as networking. In short, the challenges facing long-term unemployed workers—the black hole leading to self-devaluation, withdrawal and isolation—are met by experiences of connection with similar others, re-valuation of the self, and re-engagement in job searching.
The first mechanism is breaking the emotional isolation. As previously described, unemployed job seekers tend to become increasingly isolated over time. In the context of soc-mu support, where openly discussing hardships and external obstacles was encouraged, job seekers described the relief that came from recognizing that they are “not alone” in their experiences. As Chris put it:
It was great to talk with people on a regular basis who were in the same position as I was. Some of them had been unemployed longer than I had been, some somewhat less. But they were all facing many of the same things I had.
Crucial to breaking the sense of isolation was hearing about others’ similar emotional experiences. Paul explained: “The thing is, you just know you’re not alone and the emotional feelings you have are not just yours alone, these other people have them.” In some cases job seekers express surprise that others felt just like them:
Everybody feels very blue. I had no idea. I thought I was the only one, and when somebody brought it up, then we started talking, and it sounded like everybody was pretty much feeling like they were circling the drain. In some ways it felt better that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t isolated in the discouragement. Others were discouraged, too.
The surprise that others are feeling blue is understandable given the dominant self-help approach to support under which job seekers usually meet each other in settings where only positive displays are welcomed or in the context of professional networking meetings which by definition are focused on making a good impression on others to obtain a referral—the very opposite of the conditions needed to openly share difficult experiences. Walter described the process of realizing that he is not alone in his experience as “being with other people who were in a similar situation and just realizing that everyone has these hidden issues.” It is precisely when the emotional toll is permitted to come out of hiding, in the context of empathic peers who understand the difficulty of the experience, that job seekers come to feel relief from isolation. Rebecca, a former executive, felt that this form of support allowed her to share and receive empathy from others, giving her the sense that others also cared about her: “That’s where the support comes in. Even just people who are in the same situation as me, but knowing that they care enough.”
Breaking the emotional isolation is a necessary first step. Yet, given the specific challenges facing long-term unemployed workers, an important second step is addressing the core struggle against self-devaluation through a set of reinforcing discourses and practices that make apparent structural barriers to employment unrelated to individual skills and abilities. For example, Becky explained that “it’s helpful to be part of a group and recognize I’m not alone.” But in this case “not being alone” meant something different from reducing social and emotional isolation; it meant getting to know and appreciate the merits of the other people who are similarly stuck in long-term unemployment, which creates an opening for interpreting one’s long-term unemployment in a new light. Becky describes her experience as follows:
I try not to let [unemployment] have an impact on my self esteem and confidence, but I wouldn’t be completely honest if I said it had no impact. …. Jane [another group member] is doing everything she can and she’s not getting anywhere either, although she gets a bunch of interviews. There’s another woman who I think is incredibly thoughtful and very, very [pause] I would hire her in a heartbeat if I had a job to give her, which I don’t. I think she’s wonderful. So it’s nice to be among people you think are very competent and just unfortunate in that situation. That sounds like misery loves company, but I don’t mean it like that. I mean it’s just kinda nice to mix it up with other people that are also trying to move in the same direction
Becky’s quote reveals how in her struggle to maintain a self understanding as a valuable and skilled professional it is helpful to recognize that others who she sees as putting in great effort in their search (“doing everything”) and who have much value to contribute (“very competent”) are nonetheless also long term unemployed. This recognition allows job seekers like Becky to entertain the possibility that they are likewise competent and hardworking and “just unfortunate in that situation.” Lionel provides another example of the dynamic of how being in the group helped re-value the self:
And being with a group of people who are in the same boat, it’s very [pause] what’s the word? It makes you feel less strange. Because when you’re unemployed, you tend to feel like there’s something wrong with you, even though there isn’t. But after a while you get that way because people keep rejecting you for jobs and stuff. So when you’re with this group of people and you realize there’s two lawyers, there’s a marketing professional, there’s all these people with all these skills and they’re also having trouble finding stuff for whatever reason. It just helps you feel better about yourself.
The twin recognition of one’s long-term unemployed peers as experiencing similar emotional turmoil (“circling the drain”) and as accomplished professionals (“people with all these skills”) alters the lens of self-evaluation. Replacing the interpretive lens reinforced by self-help through which job seekers understand negative job search outcomes as reflecting a meritocratic judgment with a broader lens that includes an appreciation of external barriers that keep even highly skilled workers unemployed and which wreaks emotional havoc and sow self-doubt without regard to actual merit. Recognition of structural barriers conveys to job seekers a powerful if indirect message that negative outcomes in the labor market, as Norm put it, “are not just something about me.” In short, soc-mu support allowed the participants to observe themselves in relation to others, and thus activated mutualistic and de-individualizing narratives to interpret of their own predicament.
With soc-mu support practices facilitating the recognition of the merits of others in the same boat more conventional support practices can work to fill the interpretive vacuum created by the black hole with a re-constructed narrative about the self. For some this re-valuation of the self is helped by the simple act of having the coach or group reflect back to the job seeker the valuable skills they posses. For example, as Aaron describes:
[The coach] expressed that I’m a very qualified, experienced candidate who has accomplished a lot of different things over the course of my career. To hear that from a stranger who is just getting to know me, the first impression I’ve made and how I’ve expressed myself, that has been very supportive, and to a degree has helped my self esteem.
A similar experience of support, but this time coming from her peers rather than the coach, is described by Danielle, a former entrepreneur concerned about what she perceived to be a failing career trajectory:
I know it’s totally stupid and I should be able to be strong enough to overcome that. But just having [group members] go ‘You’re fantastic!’ That was what I really needed to feel good about myself. And then I started getting more opportunities and I had a lot of things going on.
For most, however, more powerful than the validating recognition of others was the re-valuation produced by active practices of re-constructing a self-narrative. Here re-valuation of the self is an unintended byproduct of support practices focused on honing job seekers’ self-presentation to employers. Coaches encourage job seekers to dig into their past, excavate successes and accomplishments, and then deduce from these successes a list of skills and strengths that can be clearly conveyed in the writing of resumes and cover letters, and communicated verbally during networking and interviews. Beyond self-presentation to others the interpretive space created by the twin recognitions of the shared and structural roots of obstacles also makes possible a re-constructed presentation of the self to the self. For example, Bob explains: “When you’re let go, you get discouraged, frustrated, disappointed, feel like a failure,” but he explained that the support he received “pointed out the positive things that I’ve done in my career and has helped me see that focus. So keeping me aligned with what I can offer an organization, rather than what it was that I wasn’t able to offer.” Describing the same effect Michael explains that the support he has received has been “fantastic,” exclaiming: “It’s been just phenomenal emotionally for me.” The emotional boost is due to the way support engaged him in self-analysis practices that transformed his self-perception:
Here’s what I have done. Here’s where I have succeeded. Here’s what I have achieved. It has helped my self esteem by realizing, yes, I have done things, and I am proud of some things that I have done . . . No one is putting on any airs in the group. There’s nobody who is bragging, arrogant, whatever it may be. But people who are finding out things that they should be proud of and sharing that with each other.
Gail describes how this active process of excavating past successes “made me realize that I have a lot of skills that never go away.” She then linked her recognition of skills that “never go away” to countering her discouragement: “If I keep pursuing it, eventually I will find the right connection, the right match.”
The self re-valuation that takes place in the soc-mu support context is also aided by job seekers’ experience of helping others in the group. Mickey explains his improved emotional wellbeing as generated by going to meetings where “[I] try to help people, give advice. So at the end of the day [I] can say ‘I helped somebody.’ So you feel good.” Beth likewise reported feeling better about her self due to “being part of a group. I like feeling like I’m helping other people there with my thoughts or giving them my responses or confirming how they feel etc.” Or as Mitch explained: “The group has helped my self-esteem. It is the fact that I feel like I’m doing something in terms of participating in this and trying to contribute to my group . . . It’s been priceless and I think vital.”
Practices that encourage job seekers to excavate past accomplishments to hone self-presentation to employers, or to provide peer support to other job seekers, are fairly widespread in American support organizations, including self-help support. In the typical context of continuous silent rejections from employers, filtered by individualizing narratives, such practices in and of themselves do not counter the tendency of job seekers to self-devaluate. Yet, when undertaken within the broader soc-mu support context, which works to activate de-individualizing narratives about negative outcomes, these practices do contribute to the process of self-revaluation.
The soc-mu support as described thus far facilitates de-individualization through fostering the recognition of the shared and structural roots of the emotional toll, and the recognition that meritorious others are trapped in the same situation. Another way soc-mu support works to de-individualize outcomes is by illuminating the often invisible institutional barriers which job seekers confront in seeking employment. Hiring institutions–the patterned practices and discourses that structure the labor market—are often obscured to job seekers who only perceive a black hole. Soc-mu support clarifies the inner workings of these institutions, which helps job seekers activate a less personalized and more structural ways of interpreting outcomes. This effect is crystalized in Jackie’s description of the support she received. Jackie explains that prior to the support she felt as if she was “working blind,” adding “unless you’ve got oodles of self confidence, it’s very difficult to work blind.” In Jackie’s case soc-mu support shed light on what happens when “applications come in online. How many people do they actually pick up the phone and call? “ Jackie continues:
It’s a probability thing. If you’re up against 20 people, you have less of a chance than if you’re up against three people . . . I felt like I was given encouragement that it isn’t really going to a black hole, or it doesn’t always go to a black hole. But more than that, really was the fact that it’s a numbers game.
This interpretation of difficulties in finding a job as at least partly reflecting institutionalized forces unrelated to employer evaluations of merit not only takes the personal sting out of rejections but importantly allows for greater resilience in going forward with the search. This depersonalized interpretation of silent rejections motivated Jackie to once again begin actively job searching. The support, as she put it, helped her recognize that “I’m still eminently employable . . . I just have to keep working at it.” The increased resilience as a result of the support was a common theme discussed by job seekers. In addition to de-individualizing negative outcomes, the activation of narratives of institutional barriers is also important in changing job seekers’ expectations about length of time required for finding a job. Instead of a sprint the job search is now understood as a marathon. Paul discussed how a clearer understanding of the hiring process has changed the experience from a futile black hole to one that requires persistence:
Before it was more a feeling of futility of things going into black holes in the Internet when applying for jobs. But now it’s just a matter of hanging in there and continuing with the process and continuing with the flow. And at some point, things will connect.
The understanding of the job search as involving external obstacles, and therefore requiring significant time and endurance, similarly helped Jack maintain the resilience needed to continue with the search, explaining: “It just gave me more of a spirit. You've just got to keep going. Something is going to happen eventually. You’ve got to keep working at it. You’ve got to put your time and effort in.” Resilience in continuing to search is also fostered by reminding job seekers that unlike other games, in the job search game, as Marc put it: “You only need to succeed once. Success does not require being “like a baseball player batting three hundred.” To succeed in this game “you can bat one in one thousand.”
In addition to increased resilience, soc-mu support also helps job seekers more effectively engage in search practices. The mantra of conventional job search advice to American white-collar professionals is to network. The emphasis on networking is reasonable given employers’ hiring practices that typically screen out online applications of long-term unemployed job seekers even when they possess the desired skills and experiences (Eriksson and Rooth 2014, Kroft et al. 2013, Ghayad 2013). Yet, this advice is difficult to implement without support that recognizes and addresses the vulnerabilities that inhibit job seekers from reaching out to others. Networking is fraught for long-term unemployed workers who have experienced a prolonged assault on their sense of self. Rather than reaching out, as previously discussed, long-term unemployed job seekers tend to back away from social contacts. The self-revaluation facilitated by soc-mu support helps job seekers engage in networking. Job seekers talked about support as providing a safe space in which to practice articulating, in a social context, what it is that you do and are looking for, and this can in turn lead to more comfort in reaching out to others. As Reggie explained:
Once you’re in contact with people you kind of get that confidence you need to talk … I think just starting with easy social contacts and something you enjoy, gives you the confidence you need to go to the next level of connecting with people who have knowledge. Being confident, being assertive, getting people to notice and respond. I’m more confident in what I bring to the table.
Danielle similarly explains one of the main effects of support was “feeling good about myself in general. Then I think that the picture I projected to whoever I was talking to was better.” She continued by noting that “the words might have been the same and the circumstances, but it was just because I was feeling better about myself. I could make a better impression.”
Soc-mu support and the de-individualized interpretation of outcomes also helped job seekers deal with the most loaded moment they typically face in the search process: Being asked by an employer to explain their resume gap. When asked this question job seekers perceive a clear if unstated employer presumption of laziness, incompetence, or some other flaw. Arnold describes his experience with the gap question:
I went to one interview for a senior accountant position. The comptroller walks in with this other guy and the first question he asks is, ‘So what have you been doing the last couple years?’ I just couldn’t believe it . . . Just to hear this guy, I felt like smashing his face in. This guy has got no clue what’s going on.
Soc-mu support helped job seekers shift employers’ default assumptions. Linda explains the challenge as well as how support helped:
Linda: Critical to getting me back, into motivating me to continue searching online and doing the job search, was getting support about how to explain my down time when I haven’t been employed . . . I worry how I’m perceived because when you go, they always do ask: What have you been doing since 2011? . . . They want somebody who has been working to date. They don’t want to take somebody out of the employment market . . . That’s my personal fear.”
Au: Support helped to handle that?
Linda: We’ve talked about the answers. For example, last week I went through the whole [interview] process and they didn’t seem at all questioning of my response. I explained it. I said, ‘I got laid off . . . The economy tanked.’
The support diffuses this emotionally loaded moment by helping job seekers take a more structural perspective on their own position (and those of millions of others in the same situation) and in turn help potential employers consider the possibility that the gap is not a reflection on merit but of structural factors. The resume gap mirrors the black hole of silent rejections. The black hole leaves it up to seekers to interpret employers’ silence while with resume gaps it is employers who are faced with a void –the empty time at the top of the resume—into which stigmatized narratives are typically activated to interpret the gap. As Linda’s story illustrates, soc-mu support can empower job seekers to challenge employers’ default interpretations.
Soc-mu support and recognition that “we’re in the same boat” is not uniformly a positive experience. In some cases the group can exacerbate fears. For example, for Peter the “group is not a good place.” He explains:
The group that I’m in . . . They’ve all been out of work a very long time . . . What got me down was when some of them have been out of work for 8 years . . . That’s not motivating me in my situation.
While Peter has been unemployed 7 months, the unintended and disturbing message he perceived from the group is that the others, who are unemployed much longer than he is, may foreshadow his fate. Yet, Peter’s experience was the exception. The overwhelming response of interviewees was reporting that the soc-mu support was useful on multiple levels. Another member of Peter’s own small support group described the support as follows:
The support has exponential, priceless. It’s been just absolutely wonderful. I feel like I’m in a group with some other people who are having successes in moving through this process of self-analysis. Everyone has bumps in the road, but the assignments and our coach have been just great and encouraging each other. So it’s been just priceless.
Long-term unemployment frequently leads to debilitating internalization of stigma and self-devaluation that challenges American workers’ health and wellbeing. While dominant self-help support institutions tend to exacerbate such self-devaluation by activating individualizing narratives we examine whether and how mutualistic and sociologically-informed forms of support may activate an alternative set of narratives that counter such de-valuation. As we have shown the soc-mu model of support can indeed activate more structural and shared understandings of long-term unemployment among white-collar American workers. Narratives that “we’re all in the same boat,” and that unemployment is not “just something about me” are available as a “collective resource” (Hall and Lamont 2013), and in particular institutional contexts these narratives can be activated to counter long-term unemployment’s assault on the self.
The currently dominant institutions of hiring in the U.S. generate an experience of a black hole, which leaves unemployed job seekers with no institutionalized recognition of their value or even existence. Facing silent rejections an internal narrative typically gains force about individual shortcomings as job seekers activate dominant and stigmatizing narratives for understanding their labor market challenges. Self-help support intensifies the self-devaluation process by activating hyper-individualizing narratives that frame finding work as within the control of the individual job seeker (Sharone 2013). Soc-mu support interrupts this process. By breaking job seekers’ isolation unemployed workers come to recognize that the emotional turmoil they are privately experiencing is shared by similar others, and that contrary to dominant narratives these others are talented and meritorious. This dual recognition creates an opening for activating a different set of narratives which reflect back a self that is not flawed but facing structural obstacles and experiencing the widely shared emotional fallout generated by such obstacles. Soc-mu support provides a counterweight. Institutionalized silent rejections are met with institutionalized forms of recognition. Soc-mu support transforms the interpretive lens through which job seekers experience the black hole by de-individualizing outcomes and activating mutualistic and sociological narratives that enhance job search resilience and allows for more effective engagement in job search practices.
This resilience is not the product of psychological mechanisms but a form of “social resilience” (Hall and Lamont 2013). Soc-mu support counters the devaluation and discouragement not by focusing on inner work or individual qualities but by tapping collective cultural resources and activating available mutualistic and sociological narratives to illuminate the role of institutions in creating shared and structurally rooted challenges. Building on the social resilience literature this paper shows how activating such narratives and facilitating the understanding the institutional roots of challenges can contribute to self re-valuation and wellbeing.
In addition to building theory, the findings in this paper also have important practical implications. While conceptualizations of American culture as monolithically individualistic suggest that local institutional innovations are unlikely to succeed absent a broad and fundamental cultural change, this paper points to the viability of a strategy of developing and gradually diffusing mutualistic and sociologically-informed support institutions. Our findings of re-valuation after only three months of weekly support suggest that long-term unemployed workers’ self-devaluation is not as deeply embodied and internalized as implied by theories such as Bourdieu’s (1990, 2001) symbolic violence. The soc-mu support described in this paper does not work by retraining a deeply ingrained habitus but by activating alternative narratives about the workings of the labor market, and more broadly, about the self in relation to others and social institutions. These encouraging findings suggest the value of further research to explore the scalability of this form of support as well as the most effective ways to deliver it.
Beyond long-term unemployment, the findings in this paper suggest that the broader project of diffusing a culture of health and the recognition that we are “all in this together” may be well served by experimenting with institutions that activate mutualistic narratives and foster a sociological imagination. The kinds of challenges to wellbeing described in this paper arise in a variety of contexts. As Hall and Lamont (2013 p.10) show currently dominant neoliberal institutions and discourses result in varied populations coming to be defined, and often self-define, as “losers.” While the nature of such challenges is particularly acute for the long-term unemployed, this extreme case allows us to more clearly see the kind of institutional practices and mechanisms that can counteract this more broadly felt sense of devaluation by activating narratives of mutualism, and thereby promoting a culture of health and wellbeing.
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