Flawed System, Flawed Self
Flawed System, Flawed Self by Ofer Sharone, a book review by Jacquie Clermont
What ever is wrong with us that we are, or are still, out of work? Is it our resume? Our cover letter? Not enough networking? Age, education, presentation?
Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says none of the above in his insightful look at how the games the un- or under-employed play affect their perceptions of themselves and their society. Sharone compares joblessness in two countries and two classes—the United States and Israel, American white collar and blue collar, to support his conclusion that “different labor market institutions give rise to different job-search games” and “playing these games generates very different unemployment experiences.”
Sharone, who spent half his childhood in Israel and the other half in the United States, interviewed unemployed white-collar workers in both the United States and in Israel, and unemployed blue-collar workers in the United States. He discovered significant differences in the experiences of white-collar workers in the two countries, and also significant similarities in the blue-collar experience in the United States and the white-collar experience in Israel. Thus, he concludes, the differences cannot be explained by culture alone.
American job seekers, supported and also influenced by what Sharone calls “the American career-success self-help industry,” play a “chemistry game” in which they must demonstrate they are the “good fit.”
“Skills are prerequisites to be in the running, but, ultimately, what matters most are intangible inner qualities that come through one’s self-presentation,” says Sharone. The typical job-seeker toolbox is the very personalized cover letter and resume, the elevator speech, and growing collections of contacts from networking events. When things go south, Americans blame themselves because, as Sharone puts it, “what is perceived to be the central determinant in the hiring decision—effective self-presentation and the projection of appropriate inner qualities to establish fit—is also perceived to be within the job seeker’s strategic control.” Thus, job seekers who fail feel “exposed, flawed, and rejected.”
Israeli white-color and American blue-collar job seekers play entirely different games, the “specs” and “diligence” games, respectively. Labor-market institutions in Israel are staffing agencies, hired by employers to recruit all new employees. Low-paid screeners from these agencies parse resumes for the right specifications, so what matters most for these white-collar job seekers are buzzwords, and also frequently, pre-employment tests. Thus, the toolbox for Israelis is very different from that of their American counterparts. The strategy is to locate jobs matching your own specs (as if you were a machine) and respond to them as quickly as possible. Group SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analyses, modeled after analyses of the same name used by businesses to sell products, help job seekers refine their strategies. The job hunt in Israel is rigid and impersonal, so repeated rejections give the job seekers a feeling of choser onim, a Hebrew phrase meaning being at a loss.
Back in America, blue-collar job seekers, for whom the game is demonstrating their diligence and commitment to hard work, are also blaming a system that is putting more and more importance on documents and online applications. Blue-collar workers, accustomed to finding jobs by visiting employers to ask for openings, are wary of the changes, which make the hiring process more rigid and impersonal. Says Sharone: “The ‘paperization’ of the process is frustrating for blue-collar job seekers, who generally believe that their strengths do not come through on paper. Resumes tend to highlight formal credentials, which is not where most blue-collar workers feel they can distinguish themselves.”
While losing the “diligence” game is painful, it is not wrought with self-blame, but rather with “system-blame.” This is similar to the white-collar experience in Israel: “The helpless feeling of choser onim is generated by the repeated experience of one’s determined efforts being thwarted by unyielding filters,” Sharone says.
So who or what is really to blame?
Sharone says that over the past 30 years, in both the United States and Israel, white-collar employment has gone from secure to “precarious.” He says that a “neoliberal” economy has brought declines in union membership, stagnant or declining wages and “soaring levels of economic inequality unseen since before the New Deal.” Against this background, different institutions and “games” have developed. The job search experience is determined by these institutions—their assumptions and so-called games.
But Sharone adds that the institutions and the games are not inevitable. They can be changed and “It’s up to us to change them.”
Sharone’s book is a good read for collars of any color, and a start to shifting blame to the right places. I am not, you are not, we are not flawed.
Reference: Ofer Sharone has a web site at http://www.ofersharone.com.
Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences by Ofer Sharone
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (October 16, 2013)
available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and other bookstores.