I’ll start here with a story about someone I know. This friend went for a job as a bar-person – minimum wage, unstable hours but easy(ish) work so shouldn’t be too much hassle. They got a call asking them to go in for an interview; so far, so normal. But this wasn’t any old interview – they were made to perform a series of tasks in front of a panel of judges. X Factor for a bar-job. Parading up and down the bar, pouring pints and collecting glasses on the bar floor – auditioning for a pittance. They were even encouraged to have ‘zany’ chat whilst serving customers. They did not get the job and left the interview in a bit of a daze wondering – did that just happen?
This was a surprise to me, i’ll admit. But I recently stumbled across the notion of ‘aesthetic labour’ in my reading and I made the connection between my friends experience and this concept. With the rise in service sector employment in the UK, staff are increasingly becoming part of the ‘experience’ or ‘brand’ punted by hotels, bars, cafes, restaurants and retailers in an ever crowded market. In order to differentiate themselves, companies use staff as a form of ‘style’. Workers become ever more commodified as employers seek staff with the right ‘attitude’ and who look a certain way in order to represent their brand or product. The job market has become a ‘personality market’.
So what is aesthetic labour? Warhurst & Nickson (2007) describe it as:
…the employment of workers with desired corporeal dispositions. With this labour, employers intentionally use the embodied attributes and capacities of employees as a source of competitive advantage. These dispositions are, to an extent, possessed by workers at the point of entry to employment. However, and importantly, employers then mobilize, develop and commodify these dispositions through processes of recruitment, selection, training, monitoring, discipline and reward, reconfiguring them as “skills” intended to produce a “style” of service encounter that appeals to the senses of customers, most usually visually or aurally. In other words, employee corporeality is appropriated, transmuted and then managed by employers for commercial benefit (or at least employers attempt to do so). Commercial benefit arises because in aesthetic labouring employees contribute to the production and portrayal of a distinct and defined corporate image or, more prosaically, are simply (perceived by employers to be) attractive to customers and so likely to enhance initial and repeat custom.
Williams and Connell (2010) go further, stating that: Aesthetic labor includes a worker’s deportment, style, accent, voice, and attractiveness. Employees at these stores must embody particular styles of standing, speaking, and walking. “Looking good” and “sounding right” are their jobs’ primary requirements. In virtually every case, the right aesthetic is middle class, conventionally gendered, and typically white.
Of course, in some respects there is nothing new here. Employers have long screened potential employees’ presentation. We have always sought to ‘package’ ourselves in certain ways to increase our career prospects. But the rise in the importance of the service sector means that these issues take on extra importance – particularly for young people who perhaps lack the qualifications necessary to continue into higher education.
An important issue with aesthetic labour for those of us interested in unemployment is that the dispositions typically sought by employers are associated with ‘middle-classness’. With youth unemployment rates running extremely high, employers are able to cherry-pick staff that already display the qualities desired. There is evidence to suggest that, particularly in the higher end retailers and bars, employers are drawing upon particular sections of the labour market. The embodied dispositions required are not equally socially distributed but fractured by class, gender, age, race and (dis)ability. Employers are able to save time and money training individuals in the capacities they are looking for by filtering out those that are deemed ‘inappropriate’. For example, the work of Nickson and colleagues has found that:
In Glasgow, commuters from the middle-class suburbs now fill 50% of jobs. Resultantly, younger people from those areas of Glasgow with the highest unemployment, the working-class inner-city areas, who might have been expected to be absorbed into the service sector as manufacturing declined in the city, are seemingly being excluded.
Research in areas such as Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle suggest that Glasgow is not alone. Evidence suggests that there is a ‘displacement effect’ as students take up these jobs that would, in the past, have been filled by working-class youth. Students are recruited as not only are they a ‘flexible’ source of labour but they tend to have the ‘soft-skills’ looked for – the style, language capacity, diction, grooming etc – the ‘middle-classness’ desired by service jobs. As Nicksen and colleagues note – middle-classness is being recast as a skill. There are clear links here with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and cultural capital – and employers look for staff that embody characteristics of the brand image they are looking to cultivate – and for many of the big, high street retailers this leads to the exclusion of those that are most in need of paid work – the long-term unemployed and young working-class people for example. These groups are the least likely to have the social and aesthetic skills required by the service sector. As such, this group generally finds it more difficult to access these jobs, and may even be excluded altogether from interactive service work.
This is of enormous consequence when we consider the exponential rise of the service industry in the UK today. The collapse of the manufacturing sector in Scotland – which typically accommodated working-class young people (young men, particularly) – has meant that (almost) the only entry level jobs available to young people tend to be in the service sector. Despite claims that we’re living in a high-powered, post-industrial knowledge-economy, the largest growth industry in the UK has been in the personal services. Service jobs now account for around three quarters of all jobs in the United Kingdom and retail and hospitality account for around 5 million of these -about 16% of the entire UK workforce. Retail employs around 3 million people in the UK (around 1 in 10 of the entire workforce), 60% of whom are female. As these areas have traditionally been accommodating to the youth labour market, their importance cannot be overstated – around a third of all workers in retail, for example, are under 25.
More pernicious however, is that research is showing that not only are young working-class people being excluded from this sector of the labour market, young people also carry out a form of ‘self-selection’ by not even applying for these jobs, safe in the knowledge that they have little chance of success, knowing that they do not embody the aesthetics required by the service industry. This has particular ramifications in our ’employability’ driven society where individuals are expected to meet the demands of the labour market in order to insert themselves into it. If they have given up on such a significant part of the economy before they’ve even reached the pass – then their opportunities in the labour market are markedly lessened.
It’s still the case that recruitment and selection in these industries tend to be informal – word of mouth, casual calling and referrals from friends and family. Therefore, employers are much more able to ‘filter out’ those that are deemed less appropriate to represent their company image. Organisations are able to recruit those that are ‘oven ready’, requiring very little training. This is of added importance as research tells us that recruitment tends to be based on the social and aesthetic capacities of individuals rather than their qualifications or technical skills – aspects of a candidate that are less sought after in service work.
It is absolutely crucial that attention is paid to this – if the government is serious about tackling youth unemployment. With the overwhelming focus at the moment being on the qualifications possessed by young people, much of the research into the service industry suggests that most employers are more concerned with the corporeal facets of employees. Therefore, a greater focus on these ‘soft-skills’ is necessary. Friendliness, team-working ability, and traits such as emotional intelligence have been highlighted as skills that are of the greatest importance in the current labour market. More than this of course, however, is that attention also needs to also be paid to the demand-side of the labour market. This means taking into consideration local labour market conditions and not just focusing on the individual. This is really important when considering that work in the service sector tends to fall into the ‘McJob’ category – low-paid, unstable, low-skilled and offering little opportunity of progression. Young people are not blind to this and will avoid it if they can. Unless satisfactory remuneration and stability in terms of hours offered is proffered, young people will avoid this area of work – if they can and have the choice to do so. The narrow conception of employability which so dominates government thinking at the moment is unhealthy, unhelpful and utterly counter-productive. And it seems that attention should now also be paid to this concept of ‘aesthetic labour’. If ‘lookism’ is excluding working-class young people from such a major part of our economy, then awareness of aesthetic labour and its centrality to the service industry requires pause for thought in the race to blame unemployment on individual young people.
Image for this post taken from – samwichfillin.blogspot.com
Categories: Youth Unemployment