Cultural Framings of Unemployment: Happenstance, Not Inevitable Systemic Outcome

Narratives about unemployment have undergone some fascinating shifts as the economy adjusts to growing numbers of unemployed people. Historically, unemployment was evidently something only shiftless, lazy people experienced because they couldn’t even get it together enough to have jobs. Now, that appears to have changed, and we see a shift to unemployment as something that ‘just happens,’ that people can fall into even when they do everything right and follow the rules, because we live in a harsh world and sometimes life isn’t fair.

There are, of course, cases of unemployed people that the media particularly loves to fixate on because they are such great models of the deserving poor, which is why you encounter lovely stories about nice hardworking people who just happened to end up unemployed. There seems to be a particular fondness for widows with children, or nice old men who just wanted to work a few more years before they got into retirement. They look into the camera and say they’d be happy with any work at all, really, any sort of of chance, and they’ll just keep trying.

This positions unemployment as a purely personal happenstance; it’s simply luck, in the media framing, something that is totally out of anyone’s control. Life is hard and sometimes you end up unemployed, it’s very sad, really, but there’s nothing to be done about it. This marks a pretty amazing shift from previous attitudes about how unemployment was the result of a personal failure caused by someone’s inability to be a cooperating and participating member of society.

But both framings firmly stress that unemployment is a personal issue, not a social or public one. Whether you think people don’t have work because they’re useless or because they’re just down on their luck, the primary focus is still on what is happening to the individual, rather than examining the system in which it occurs. To step back and take a larger look at the system is to see a somewhat different picture that may be harder to reconcile, which is probably why people avoid it, if possible. Because admitting that unemployment might be about something else, something deeper, something more complex, something institutional and structural, would be to mean that there is something to be done about it.

The much-touted economic recovery has been described as ‘wageless’ because that’s exactly what it is. Companies are making more, but there are not more jobs, and pay is not improving. Big companies have learned how to function without workers and how to turn this to their advantage to make even more money, which is working out just dandy for them and the political campaigns they fund. It is, of course, not so dandy for people who are out of work, including former employees of these companies who may never be able to return to their old jobs. Once eliminated, it’s found that they aren’t really necessary.

To admit that unemployment is institutional is to start talking about its root causes, which have nothing to do with laziness or luck. People are unemployed because of a huge number of factors; because of the -isms that play a role in who gets educated, trained and hired. Because of the corporate dominance of society that promotes things like a wageless recovery. Because of increasing outsourcing to cheaper sources of labour. Because of exploitation of people who cannot afford to fight back when their employers treat them like disposable machines instead of human beings.

Reframing unemployment is critical for talking about how to put an end to it, because thus far, ‘job creation’ doesn’t seem to be working on a large scale, and it seems to be heavily personalised. Because it’s coming from an approach rooted in the idea that unemployment is a personal issue. It’s something that happens to people, rather than being an integral part of society. Unemployment is quite profitable for major corporations, as long as they can keep the level at the sweet balance point where the economy doesn’t get too restive over joblessness, because this might cut into their bottom line.

When looking at unemployment, we need to look not at small businesses struggling to survive that can’t afford to take on new employees. We need to look at corporations closing hundreds and sometimes thousands of stores, putting those staff out of work. We need to look at companies that take work to areas with more lax labour laws so they can pay less, provide fewer worker protections, and make a bigger profit. We need to look at how it is that eliminating positions, forcing people to work multiple jobs under one title, has become the norm in many industries, how it is that people are expected to do twice as much work for the same pay just so their employers don’t have to hire another person.

Because these things are institutional. They are built into the fabric of the US economy and they explain how and why people think about employment and work. And they are things that are not the result of personal traits, or the personal traits people think they can attribute to each other, nor are they the result of luck or happenstance. They are coldly, cruelly calculated, the result of centuries of social attitudes building up to this moment, where unemployment rates are rising with no end in sight and people can coolly announce that a little job creation would totally solve the problem.

Which isn’t to say that those created jobs were a waste or shouldn’t have happened, because every little bit helps, but they are such a small and insignificant step in the face of the institutional structures here, and that isn’t interrogated very often by the policymakers.