Allison Pugh: "Job Insecurity Creates Individual Sorrow Out of Collective Abandonment"

28 Apr 2015

Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, Dr. Pugh has recently published "The Tumbleweed Society" (Oxford University Press, 2015). She participated in STI's "Being Human in a Consumer Society" Experts Meeting.

The title of your book creates a great visual in the mind. What are you referring to when you talk about The Tumbleweed Society? 

The Tumbleweed Society is one in which people are as rootless as the dried plants that roll across the plains in western films.  Job insecurity can dislodge people from their established communities and relationships, making the whole question of commitment newly salient.  If employers no longer owe much in loyalty, employees have to decide for themselves what loyalty means, both at work and at home.

This has the most powerful impact upon middle-class and lower-income people, those for whom job insecurity signifies more anxiety than opportunity.  It turns out that for them, job insecurity causes two primary kinds of reactions:  it leads some to celebrate their independence, committing to others only “as long as it’s good,” these invulnerable types are the protagonists of The Tumbleweed Society.  But job precariousness also leads others to build a moral wall around their families to stave off insecurity, a moral wall that sometimes seems to make home life more fraught.  For them, job insecurity makes them draw a sharper contrast between work and family, raising expectations about mutual obligations at home.  

The Tumbleweed Society is thus part-truth and part-nightmare, stemming from the insecurity (at work) to which people force themselves to adapt (at home).

Your book speaks to how job insecurity impacts inequality; can you tell us more about that relationship? 

Inequality acts like a funnel for job precariousness, shaping its impact.  The way work is changing contributes to job insecurity at the lower echelons, but those same trends can actually benefit those at the upper socioeconomic tiers.  Employers are more likely to “poach” professional workers than those in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations, and professional workers are more likely to obtain raises or other benefits in response to the prospect of their departure. In some professions, cycling through multiple employers is more the norm than staying put.

While professionals seem to be protected from the ravages of job insecurity by their perch at the top of the heap, semi-professionals and less-skilled workers are protected from the ravages of inequality by job security, when they can get it.   Of late greater attention has been paid to inequality as a crucial social problem, but instead it is inequality and insecurity that matters, because for all but the poorest, income deprivation is not as bad as income unpredictability.

You also talk about insecurity culture – what exactly does that mean? 

Insecurity culture is the combination of precarious work, a shrinking welfare state, and a widespread sense that the market is the way to solve problems.  It includes trends like increasing privatization, policies that shift risk onto individual workers, and the rise of individualism.  

Insecurity culture creates a sense that people are individually responsible for social facts—like the availability of work, their ability to forge families in precariousness situations, their sense of who is responsible for workplace injuries, and their capacity to make a job stable in the face of the massive overhaul of management practices. Insecurity culture abounds as people try to acclimate to the reality that layoffs will happen in good times and bad.  Insecurity culture includes both job precariousness and the culture that makes it invisible, that encourages people to view it as lamentable-but-inevitable, something too obvious to belabor and too powerful to forestall. 

Can you tell us more about how insecurity culture and job insecurity impacts the worker?

Americans are in love with work.  So when there is evidence, in the form of job insecurity, that work does not love us, it can be piercing.  Many people employed in insecure work have responded to this prospect by downplaying what they expect of employers.  They anticipate very little loyalty, excusing the perceived loss of employer commitment as the artifact of broad social forces like globalization or technology that they can’t do anything about.  

In contrast, however, most people – aside from job-hopping professional managers – expect work commitment from themselves as a sign of their personal character.  The combination means they adopt a “one-way honor system,” making them beholden at work to firms often utterly free of such considerations.  

When they face the costs of this imbalance in the form of a layoff or job disruption, their low expectations limit the feelings they are allowed to feel, since job insecurity was just what they were supposed to expect.  They audibly strive to lessen the emotional impact of workplace rejection, to look anywhere but at their employers for a place to lay blame. This means that they need to shift their feelings to find an outlet to express these emotions.  Job insecurity creates individual sorrow out of collective abandonment.

You also address how gender shapes the impacts of job insecurity. Will you elaborate on that a little?

When you break down the numbers, particularly in the private sector, women’s job tenure has risen, reflecting their increasing attachment to work, while men’s job tenure has declined, reflecting the changing structure of work.  Women’s sense of insecurity thus depends on whether they compare their work lives to their mothers’ or their fathers,’ while men’s generally reflects a pronounced sense of loss.   

Job insecurity also extends its tendrils into the care system at home, however, with powerful implications for the needs women face there.  Women continue to retain primary responsibility for paid and unpaid caregiving, with unemployed men reportedly spending more of their free time on leisure pursuits.  Thus gender and inequality combine to shape the way people adapt to job precariousness, so that low-income women either over-commit or under-commit at home, because job precariousness creates overwhelming need for which they are presumed responsible, while low-income men blame themselves for their lack of job security and blame others for their lack of relationship security.   

The Tumbleweed Society addresses parenting head-on. What are today’s parents teaching their kids about commitment?

Parents of all kinds of backgrounds want to prepare their kids for the insecure age by encouraging them to be “flexible.”  They aim to raise kids who focus on developing themselves, who maintain some independence, who anticipate insecure work, and who protect themselves from friends who are troubled.  But they vary in how they view that flexibility: either flexibility as opportunity, enabling kids to take advantage of the choices that were bound to roll their way, or flexibility as armor, protection against the certain disaster of the bleak future of work.   Like generals always fighting the last war, mothers and fathers parent to solve the challenges and struggles that they had to surmount, with flexibility their strategy of choice.

Buy "The Tumbleweed Society" at Oxford University Press' website
Visit Allison Pugh's expert profile
Visit "Being Human in a Consumer Society" Experts Meeting page