Posted by: lucymontrose | November 14, 2011

Daily Kos diary: Why “Generation Sell” bothers me

This concerns a New York Times piece that was recently published in the New York Times about the Millennial Generation, “Generation Sell“.

Now, despite having been born in the late 1970s, which most sociologists consider part of Generation X, I have always identified much more with Millennials. My social attitudes, my career trajectory (*cough*) and the cultural values that really speak to my heart, just more closely align with those slightly younger than me. I have long been waiting for the day when Americans would wake up and start questioning the cultural values we’ve put up with for a long time, particularly regarding how to earn a living; and the Millennials, by and large, have been it. It has been the Millennials, far more than Generation X, who have been willing to redefine our social relationships to make them more democratic, rather than just living with them.

But Millennials have a danger lurking beneath the surface that could undo their ideals; and it was spelled out for me in that New York Times article.

At first blush, I liked what I was seeing: Millennials see small business as a key factor in bringing back economic fairness to America. Moreover, it’s an idea with staying power: one grounded in reality and with potential to make our small-d democratic ideals have real influence for decades to come.

What the corporate consolidation of the past few decades has done has not been merely slash jobs. It has decreased the number of possible business models to emulate, and put pressure on remaining companies to copycat for their own survival; thereby making our economy functionally a monopoly/oligopoly. Thirty flavors of salad dressing, all made by the same company, is exactly the right illustration.

A commitment to increasing the number and diversity of business models can only be a good thing, for a fair economy and for everyday democracy.

But still, there is something inherently unfair and undemocratic about “Generation Sell.”

One of the things that has most chafed us, in fact, about large corporations is the culture they have created of “always be selling”. The pressure on us to always be representing our company in a positive light, even in our off-hours; opens the door to all manner of corporate/employer intrusion into our private lives.

The “always be marketing yourself” and “always be representing your company” mantra is the impetus behind firing someone for their off-hour Facebook postings, and for the disregard of education, qualifications, and even hard work itself in favor of hiring for “fit”. Which has resulted in a lot of workplace cultures homogeneous of personality, because people do self-select for people who resemble themselves; and a lot of companies that may feel comfortable with each other, but may be neither diverse, nor equable… nor even particularly adept at business, as Wall Street has shown us.

Marketing as we know it today, or as how the large corporations have come to define it, is inherently discriminatory. Marketing loves stereotypes, and uncomplicated personalities that can be easily pigeonholed; because like it or not, that’s what our instincts too often prefer.
When it comes time to make a decision quickly, in those instances when our lizard brains override our higher functions, we all too often make decisions that are inherently looksist, albeist, and ageist; because quite simply old, disabled and unattractive people don’t “sell” as well in our current marketing culture. (It’s not personal, honey; it’s a business decision. It just so happens that the ones who make the most money for the company are the ones who adhere to conventional cultural roles.)
And not only would seem to be but a small step from those “–isms” to full-blown sexism and racism too; fulfilling these marketing needs is inherently pro-privilege. It’s a lot easier for a wealthy person to make continuous “investments in themselves” so as they can be fit to work with the public, than a 99-percenter.

Not to mention the even more onerous pressure to never say anything negative about a company or institution. Which unfortunately has some teeth behind it: the fact that people have actually lost their jobs for being critical about their employers on their off hours. When all criticism becomes a possible career-ender, no matter how politely we couch it; when we lose jobs for disagreeing with the boss, as when a former president acted like a CEO and took action to keep “marketing discipline”; when our very financial survival demands we adopt a fealty to the lifestyle we are marketing; then we lose the ability to disagree with each other and still be friends. Which is vital in any task of coexisting with a large, diverse group of people.

Prejudice is, at its heart, about fear of feeling uncomfortable; and feelings of safety around people like us. It’s about an attempt to feel socially secure. But just as it’s wrong to balance a budget on the backs of those least able to afford it, it’s wrong to build our feelings of security and happiness from denying other people opportunity and social connectedness.
Moreover, we need to keep our instincts fresh for the purpose in which they really shine: alerting us to dangerous people. Such marketing values have misled our instincts, turning us off to potential friends and allies while driving us into the arms of those who make us feel good in the short term, but ruin us in the end. It’s no accident that the attractive, socially smooth sociopath has risen to such heights of success in American culture. That’s exactly the kind of person our “always be marketing” culture has held up as an exemplar.

Millennials are poised to become a small d-democratic powerhouse for economic and social justice. But if we’ve internalized the marketing values we’ve grown up with, our efforts will be cut off at the knees. We’ll have failed to get over our prejudices in any meaningful way; believing, as our old big-box customer service employers taught us, that an older person won’t sell, a disabled person will turn off too many customers, a minority won’t be able to “relate” to the majority white customer base.
Our task is to broaden the definition of marketing, so that more types of people can “sell”. So that more of us feel we have a place in this economy, and can look forward to a long life of being an active player in our communities.

This will be one of the hardest things we have to do, because it will often require going against our very instincts, and our very notions of what makes us feel good and comfortable. But any fundamental change in the American business model demands it.

The root of all evil is not money. It’s something more basic.

More to the point, it’s something that makes us feel so good, so comfortable and healthy and right, how could it possibly be bad?

It’s our need to feel comfortable. For the most obvious example: racism and sexism are, at their base, about our need to feel more comfortable and secure in our surroundings. Countless studies have proven that we like best the people who most remind us of ourselves… and we feel safest in a community that shares our values, preferences and life experiences.

And we are also coming off a decades-long charm offensive by psychologists, medical doctors, liberals, conservatives, spiritual leaders, cultural luminaries, and intellectual heavyweights alike attesting to the healing power of happiness… with no mention of how we get that happiness. Which has elevated stress-relief to a virtue, to the point of making thinking and concern for the less fortunate as emotionally less-than-healthy. Which has looked, uncritically and almost uniformly without dissent, on emotional intelligence; not openly acknowledging any possible dark side or side effects until a good 15 years after the fact.

How far down the rabbit hole have we fallen? I’ll just let my comments in the Alternet piece, “The Attractiveness Bonus in the Workplace” speak for themselves:

Why appearance bias in jobs where there is ostensibly no public contact? Because attractive people make our l’il gut instincts feel good.

Those touchy-feely things… which, I might add, were held up as better judges of character than our rational minds, and more reliable and closer to the truth than thoughts, by just about everybody under the frickin’ sun with barely-microscopic levels of dissent, from Oprah to our former president to our entire media to an army of credentialled doctors over the last couple of decades… well, those instincts of ours just like feeling comfortable above all else in the world. They like things fast, easy, and familiar. They like it so we don’t have to take too much time or emotional energy processing pesky things like complexity. Our instincts love stereotypes.
And may I add that happiness and being stress-free is the most important thing in the world? May I add that it doesn’t matter HOW you get your happiness, or where it comes from, or whether it was bought by screwing up someone else’s life, turning off our empathy switch, or surrounding ourselves with yes-men… only that we’re happy; because happy people are ALWAYS healthier and smarter than unhappy people, and EWWW I don’t want you contaminating me with your poisonous cortisol?
May I add that we are social beings and, as such, it’s more beneficial and healthy to follow the crowd than to stand up and challenge things? Besides, silly rabbit, everyone knows you can’t change the world; you can only change yourself, and your response to things.

For that I blame two people more than anyone else: Daniel Goleman and David Brooks. Goleman for spawning an industry that gave us a green light to stunt others’ LIVELIHOODS and malign others’ characters for failing to tickle our subjective fancies; Brooks for continuing to set the tone as to what it means to be a sociable human being– which, apparently, means someone who will put up with a lot of emotional manipulation and subtle coercion; because, goshdarnit, those are necessary prices to pay for love and friendship; and ZOMG, gender essentialism is so SEXY.

We are continually told that if we follow our gut instincts, we will be happier. And if we are happier, we are automatically healthier, smarter, and have more friends. In a country where 1 in 10 people suffer from depression and many more suffer from other mental illnesses and just basic unhappiness, these are not just empty promises. They are emotional manna to us. We eat these words up… like triple-chocolate ice cream with a touch of catnip. Besides, our economy being what it is; an creeping monoculture where everyone must be selling, baby, selling, where the personality traits of financiers and decision-making-by-mysticism are increasingly setting the tone for every line of work in America, our very livelihoods may demand we sing in tune…

We tell ourselves we are emotionally healthier and more intelligent, that we are socially well-connected and sound judges of character. Because we’re doing what the culture has been telling us to do. We’ve been trusting primarily, or entirely, on our gut instincts. And they make us feel good.

And we forget just how prejudiced our gut instincts can be. How racist, sexist, classist, ableist, every kind of -ist they can be. Because we forget that what our gut instincts enjoy more than anything, is not rocking the boat.

Money is just a tool.

Hugo Schwyzer has an excellent post up about the creeping sexualization of women’s high school sports– about how this rare bastion of freedom from pressure to look sexy is now losing it.

The most important point Hugo makes is here (emphasis mine):

The issue isn’t improved performance. In high school volleyball, it’s hard to argue that French-cut briefs lead to a dramatic step up in anything other than attendance at games. (Many women I interviewed for this piece report that the number of people showing up for volleyball matches or track events rise when schools begin to require skimpier uniforms).

But a dramatic step-up in attendance at games means increased profits. Increased buzz about the team. And therefore, it’s a sound business and sales decision in the eyes of the athletics department. Why would anyone kill a golden goose, especially when the alternative may be to scrap athletics altogether for lack of funds?

The last thing we need in a recession is what’s happening right now– a greater and greater restriction of salability (synonymous with employability in a sales-dominated economy) to those who adhere to a stereotype of sexually attractive.

I’ll let my responses on Hugo’s personal and body image blogs sum it up for me:

In order to tackle this problem, we have to find a good way to rebut the business point the sexualization proponents are going to make.

If showing more female skin has increased the audiences for high school sports, then it has increased profits and word-of-mouth for them. One of the rare recession-proof industries has been the “breastaurant” chain, where basically only “hot” women interested in wearing skimpy clothes on the job need apply as waitstaff. The message is clear: you must be sexy to be profitable.

This very powerful business incentive means businesspeople will keep on sexualizing until we confront it directly. It’s nothing personal to them; scantily clad women just rake in the profits, they will tell you. Our task is to break this link… to broaden the definition of beautiful (and therefore profitable). To break the linkage of the meaning of “customer service” with being ever-sexually available and attentive (in other words, like a gender-biased exemplar).

It’s one thing when it’s images in the media; it’s quite another when making a living itself becomes more and more dependent on us either having the right genes, or a few extra thousand dollars cash lying around at any given time for appearance upkeep and maintenance– which inevitably will favor the economically privileged and the conformist.

This has always been an inherent danger in an economy as dominated by sales and customer service as ours. The conventionally attractive person comforts us, and makes us want to open our wallets in a visceral way; and it will remain like this and get worse unless we are willing to go toe-to-toe with our own gut instincts as well as those of an increasing number of employers.

I don’t want to live in a world where I have to look like a centerfold to be a trial lawyer, a doctor, or any other job facing the public.

We have to confront whoever makes sexualizing decisions from a business standpoint. Like it or not, scantily-clad women and girls are golden geese to them, and indeed to any cash-strapped organization seeking to make a quick infusion of profit. No one is going to kill a golden goose– unless you provide them with a strong business reason to do so.

But we also have to check our own instincts, and our tendency to let ourselves be sold sexuality. It takes both a salesman and a customer to create a message about what is salable. We break that cycle, we substitute it for a profitable model where the girls don’t need to be sexualized, we’ve cracked the code. (I’m sorry, they’ll just have to be on their own when it comes to contests of who can generate the most profit.)

Yet another reason why we need public schools, and public amenities! The need to make a profit puts pressure on all of us to be profitable. Which eventually, invariably means those who adhere most faithfully to stereotypes.

Beauty should be fun. Beauty should be enjoyable. Beauty should not be a job requirement.

Posted by: lucymontrose | June 11, 2011

First post on The Tractatus: Amen, Graduate Fog.

What a breath of fresh air to find Graduate Fog. Boy, as bad as things have been here in America, it looks like the Brits are having it far worse.

I mean… unpaid internships for retail jobs???

And they’re about five years behind us as far as questioning the whole “blame the applicants” culture… if anything, they’re doubling down on these toxic, demoralizing ideas.

I’ll just let my first comment with GF speak for itself:

What really strikes me is all the “employability skills” talk. Five years ago we were in the same place the UK is in today– almost universal consensus on the part of employers to blame the applicants. Where we are starting to come out of this Hayley Taylor self-confidence-magical-thinking trance, I’m very sad to see that in the UK they’re doubling down.

I have a sinking feeling I know what “employability” really means. It’s someone who will turn off their dignity, own opinions and right to a personal life. It’s someone who will cheerlead the company brand 24/7/365, even in their personal life. It’s someone who turns off their empathy for fellow human beings, and thinks and acts exactly like the people spouting this crap.

It’s someone who, in other words, is in no position to make any constructive change at their organization, and has no time or energy for anything but survival.

If we have to become that kind of person, or adhere to an ever-increasing list of cultural demands, in order to be employable… then despite any proclamations of freedom from our government, we are NOT free. Nor can we think, love, or do anything else humans do at their best.

And that is inhumane. For humanity can only do its best when we can rise above survival. Where we have time, energy and money for friendships, love, art, adventure, and discovering who we are.

What do these employers think… they already have the workers they have in mind, the ones who have been carefully screened and selected to be EXACTLY like them? Is that why they’re almost universally decided not to care about education, hard work, or reality of what it really takes to become an accomplished worker?

Let me repeat: when you have to sacrifice your personal thoughts, character, personality and dignity in order to make a living, you are NOT free. No matter what any politician overly fond of using the word says.

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