‘When you’re promoting brand You, everything you do – and everything you choose not to do – communicates the value and character of the brand.’ These words, taken from the article that first popularized ‘self-branding’ back in 1997, have come to epitomize the dogma of our work-obsessed culture: employability. In an age of ubiquitous social media, when lives are curated for market, employability no longer simply describes our work-based skills and training; it has become a way of life. We are each our own brand now and every moment is an opportunity to build our personal equity, or so the story goes.
Millennial life often feels like endless work to find and sustain more work. Networking online and offline, posting images and opinions, not to mention answering e-mails at all hours and neverending job applications, our so called ‘brands’ require constant attention. Consequently, ‘leisure time’ seems laughable, a derisory concept to a generation encouraged to spend its weekends and evenings priming employers with witty, memorable tweets, and editing daily events into glossy lifestyle images. If work/life balance feels like a bad joke, the need to market oneself is even worse – a joke that goes on forever, never to deliver. Needless to say, the joke is on us as we spend our lives working ever-more to receive ever less.
While too often seen as a generational dysfunction, the problem is clearly socioeconomic. Growing up in the shadow of a labour market unable to provide the stable, long-term employment of the post-war settlement, millennials have had to become ‘flexible’, the watchword for a new era of precarious work. No longer are there jobs for life – even a year is a privilege for most; a fact well known to millennials who expect to manage a diverse portfolio of transient ‘gigs’ and projects.
It’s no wonder that a successful self-brand offers a glimmer of certainty, promising to shape the fragments of our working lives into something coherent and marketable. But as a recent report I wrote for Autonomy found, self-branding does not provide certainty so much as encourage us to see uncertainty as an opportunity.
Only perpetuating these uncertainties further, government policy has added to our pervasive ‘employability’ culture. As opposed to fostering an environment of decent, secure employment, successive Labour and Conservative governments have instituted policies that make the worker responsible for their employment prospects. Draconian schemes such as Back to Work and The Work Programme ostensibly prepare the unemployed for their return to the labour market – despite the fact that ever-more jobs are being outsourced, casualized or automated. Work may be more unstable and nebulous than ever, but the message remains clear: you and you alone are responsible for finding or creating gainful employment.
As if to repeatedly drive this message home, employability now follows us from cradle to grave. From training modules in high schools and universities that anxiously ‘prepare’ students for the world of work to Employment Support for over-50s and pensioners, there is no escape.
As the capitalist mode of labour is made increasingly untenable by automation and climate change, our culture only seems to intensify its grip on work as if, somehow, doing more will save us from the coming apocalypse, when in reality work is only stoking the flames. With this ever-more thorough extension of work across our lives, it’s no surprise that we hear of millennial burnout, the condition of a generation weaned on a diet of ‘employability’ and social media. And burnout is only the thin end of the wedge, with overwork creating what can only be described as an epidemic of work-based mental illness. Our inability to escape from work is, quite literally, killing us.
The cultural shift required here is immense. Yet, a number of smaller policy-based steps such as a shorter working week, a stronger welfare system and a universal basic income would take the pressure off workers to constantly maximize their employability, making what appears to be an unthinkable change entirely feasible. Our obsession with employability is the symptom of a wider crisis of work; it’s time to end this crisis with an economic vision fit for the twenty-first century.