The psychology of job hunting and the trappings of the market

Lisa Keenan examines the consequences which the prioritisation of qualities over skills has for employees and job seekers.

A lot has changed since the Fordist model first began to show signs of decay in the late sixties. The rise of the service industry coupled with the increased mechanisation of the primary and tertiary sectors of the economy mean that we now see extreme division of labour and the creation of a multitude of hyper-specialized jobs. Career paths are no longer linear – we don’t start with one company straight out of school and work our way up the ladder – so these days we change jobs as often as we change our car.
Whereas before it was enough to possess the right skill-set for the job, or even the ability to learn the required skills, now the prospective employee must display a wide range of desirable personality traits if he or she is to be seriously considered for a position. Employers are now suspicious of anyone who appears to be wedded to their career and take signs of other interests as a good indication of a well-rounded individual.
Involvement in extra-curricular activities is now almost as essential as a university degree. Interests and activities outside of employment serve as signals to employers. They show what kind of person you are and whether or not you are likely to “fit in” to the workplace in question (this is another departure from the traditional employment pattern: the question of candidates’ suitability for a post would never have been determined by their passion for modern art or their fondness for running marathons at weekends). The expansion of the criteria which the candidate must meet is not just evident at the higher echelons of the service sector but has instead trickled down to its menial service jobs.
Anecdotal evidence on the subject indicates that the quest to find the perfect employee now borders on the surreal. One well-known cosmetics store refused to take in curricula vitae and instead asked for a “fun” letter of application explaining what the job seeker was “all about”. A candidate was later hired on the basis of her ability to express her personality through the use of stickers and peppy self-descriptive adjectives. An equally well-known clothes shop requests access to candidates’ Facebook profiles as well as the inclusion of four photos of the applicant which sum him or her up.
This hyper-differentiation of employees can be viewed in a positive light. People who have other interests outside of work possess a range of qualities which can aid them in their job. For example, those who engage in team sports have experience working as part of a group in order to achieve a common goal. Such a talent is difficult to quantify but is logically a point in a candidate’s favour from the employer’s perspective. Engaging in these activities also demonstrates an ability to multi-task. However, placing such a burden on employees to distinguish themselves from the masses and job seekers does have rather negative effects on their psyche.
In 1983, Arlie Hochschild, building on Ervin Goffman’s insights in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, argued that expecting employees to possess and display certain qualities during their work day can in fact lead to “emotional numbness” and a loss of self. The flight attendants she surveyed spoke of the mental exhaustion they experienced after clocking out from a shift during which they were expected to embody relaxed friendliness at all times. In addition, for those who are looking for work or who have been “let go”, the extreme individualisation of the work experience means any “failure” in this regard is experienced as a personal failure by the individual, regardless of the wider economic context. What this means is that even if overall unemployment figures are high, the message people receive is that employment is out there for them so long as they can stay positive and present themselves to employers in an attractive light. This is particularly true in the American context.
In Bait and Switch, Barbra Ehrenreich wrote of her experience of life coaches, motivational speakers and CV doctors as she searched for a job in corporate America. Essentially the doctrine these people propagated was one of individual responsibility. Ehrenreich sums up the message of one of the many life coaches that she paid to help her in her quest for a job: “as for his philosophy, it’s straightforward victim blaming: your problem is you”. Suggestions that a difficult job market or a rigid corporate culture may in some way be to blame for the inability of many to find a job is met with derision by the gurus encountered throughout the book. 
Ehrenreich wrote Bait and Switch in 2006 and although the economic context has changed since then, the culture of victim blaming has not. In times of recession employers may wield the whip but, as any career coach will tell you, it is important that job hunters not show their awareness of this fact. The ideal employee must be eager to please but full of self-confidence and sure of his own self-worth. In fact, those looking for work are expected to engage in a kind of “double-think” that makes it impossible to consider the broader context in which they undertake their job search.
At the end of January a link to the Forbes website caught my eye; it claimed to have invaluable advice for job seekers in these very difficult times. The article turned out to be a catalogue of faux pas which must be avoided by applicants, chief of which was “not to let your job desperation show”. I was baffled. Could this mean that even in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression the unemployed were being asked to internalize the blame for their situation? I read on. It could. While acknowledging that job search can “often” be linked to survival (apparently for some it is simply a hobby), the author proceeds to talk about how off-putting the sight of the desperate candidate is to the employer: “If you’ve ever witnessed desperation in a relationship, you know how unappealing it can be to see someone willing to settle for something. Anything. It makes you wonder just how much that person values himself or herself.” Even at a time when job loss is widespread and money worries are foremost in many people’s minds, displaying something as vulgar as a pressing need to meet mortgage payments is a no-go area. The focus must instead be on maintaining a positive attitude and pursuing aggressive self-improvement.
The logical course of this prioritising of personality traits over qualifications is that the qualification aspect of the job will eventually slip into the background. Essentially, the quality replaces the skill as the criteria for employment. We can imagine a situation in which the division of labour becomes so extreme that the skill-set becomes almost irrelevant as qualities like an “upbeat attitude” take centre stage. The recently released movie Up in the Air illustrates this with a cost-cutting measure whereby inexperienced office workers take over the task of firing people by webcam, replacing the skilled consultants who had previously flown across the country to do it. The only requirement here would be an ability to stay calm and follow orders – and of course the capacity to read a flow chart mapping out the correct responses for every situation.
Ehrenreich argues that we can see the supremacy of the personality trait over the qualification in action today as jobs like pharmaceutical company sales reps become invaded with cheerleaders whose exaggerated smiles and generally attractive appearance (given that the majority of doctors are male) are deemed to produce better results (more sales of drugs) than qualifications in chemistry or biology. The change is underway and admiration for packaging rather than content is now just one more thing for prospective employees to worry about.