Saturday, April 3, 2010

The myth of the job market

I hear a lot about the job market these days—an inevitable consequence of putting in my time at Ontario Works. Recently, I got to wondering about the term. Time was, we used to have a work force. Now we have a job market. The terms are interchangeable. If you're unemployed, and have been for a while, "re-entering the job market" and "re-entering the workforce" are interchangeable.

So why the shift in terminology? What does it imply? To me, it's fishy, reminiscent of the way "consumer" clobbered "citizen" to mean "the public".

A market is a place where customers buy merchandise from vendors. Thus, if today's job market (somehow different from yesterday's?) really is a market, who is selling what to whom?

Job descriptions read like advertising copy. Dynamic, exciting, innovative, leading edge, creative... The hucksterism telegraphs a personality, much as "this great country" and "tradition" telegraph a personality for beer. You feel left out if you don't covet what they're offering. And, of course, the jobs all sound like existential panaceas; Sartre's god-shaped hole will magically disappear if you "...join our leading edge, dynamic team." Who, on reading that, doesn't feel a twinge of Gee, I gotta get me one of those?

All of which could lead one reasonably to conclude that what's for sale in the job market is jobs. Why else take such pains to make them so attractive?

But when I write a résumé, it's advertising, too. This is what I'm selling, it proclaims; here's what I have to offer. Buy me now and don't get left behind. Coaches in the art of getting hired stress the need to sell yourself. "In today's job market&mdash," I'm starting to detest that phrase, "—image matters just as much as work experience."

But if I have to sell myself (and there's a word for that in every language), it's me for sale, not jobs. So once again, I ask: In the so-called job market, who is selling what to whom? Are employers selling jobs, or workers selling skills? And who is doing the buying? At what cost? What market anywhere is so chaotic that you cannot tell the buyers from the sellers, nor even figure out what's being bought and sold?

When I was a member of the work force, I was part of a collective, a pool of willing competence society could draw on. When workers' skills went begging, the fault lay with society.

Now I'm in the job market. Markets, we are told, are governed by the heartless doctrine known as social Darwinism. Competition and self-interest prevail. If workers can't find jobs, the fault is theirs. Not for lacking competence, not for lacking will, but because they aren't good salesmen. Social degradation, economic factors, the absence of political will, and the ghastly, greedy errors made by companies and corporations—none of these creates the difficulties faced by those in search of work. In the job market, the seekers are to blame if they can't find employment.

Unemployment—and underemployement, an even graver issue—is not a market problem. It's a social problem. It can't be remedied by pitting individuals against each other, which attitude the term, "job market", fosters. In a market, collectivity disintegrates; there are only sharks, competing in a frenzy of self-interest.

Am I wrong in thinking this is not a healthy paradigm?

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