Allison Pugh’s (@Allison_Pugh) sociology project, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity paints a grim picture of work life in America and forecasts that it will get worse. She does not mention anything about it getting better, but — well, those Americans are an adaptable bunch.
There aren’t as many possible perspectives on this text as there are thorns on a drought-happy tumbleweed (and this reviewer grew up in Tucson), but maybe as many as on a baby weed.
But start with its premise: The easy part: That an overwhelming sense of helplessness has settled in with increasing number of long term unemployed, underemployed of all ages, including skilled and college-educated workers. The harder: those employees almost never blame their employers, and steadily engaged in lowering expectations of employers.
Or on to the perspective afforded by from impact of serial unemployment / employment on care-givers, gender roles, marriage and issues of identity.
The book may not prove to be a bullet train to the promised land of labor justice for the proletariat. In fact, there are several paths to derailment.
For one thing, prospective readers might want to start with Appendix A, “Commitment Talk,” which explains the interview method. It’s a methodology that won’t satisfy some non-sociologists, which is to say there won’t be much conversation about hypothesis testing or statistical significance.
Readers should be prepared for a calculated mix of essay, polemic, storytelling, light discourse and academic coverage. In some respects this is better than some long essays, such as long form New Yorker or Harpers pieces (e.g,, Harpers recent “The Great Republican Land Heist” by Christopher Ketcham, February 2015). These long form pieces have many of the same elements sans academic coverage, which means that there are few references provided if any. Fact-checking, or even opinion-seeking are an uphill battle. That weakness is not to be found in Tumbleweed Society.
On the other hand the mix of bibliographical zeal and storytelling doesn’t always make for a smooth journey. The side trips (to endnotes, and the references cited there) , while necessary and even reassuring, do not always support the polemic. Interpretations provided by the author for interviews are plausible, but often not the only interpretation possible. Pugh has several themes that are exploited in the text, and these play out in her interpretations, but other possible explanations are not introduced; it would have been helpful to learn how she might refute these other views.
But these reservations should be no excuse for reading about the emergency of what Pugh calls “the ‘insecurity culture,’ a culture of personal responsibility and risk, linked to the spread of precariousness at work, the neoliberal receding of the state, and the domination of the market.” How widespread is this phenomenon? Silicon Valley statistics of 50% turnover every two years seem plausible, though turnover in smaller businesses (somewhat of a blind spot in this study) is likely less.
The impact — and the risks — no doubt hit women hardest, and “gendered” impact is a focus of Tumbleweed. Exceptions are numerous, but many will conjure a woman when asking:
How does a society predicated on mobility handle the bothersome needs of the young, the sick and the elderly, that act to drag caregivers down from the stratosphere of choice and flexibility?
Widespread insecurity, inflected by social inequality, has a profound impact, both the insecurity we choose, and that which we are dealt, whether we are a leaver or the left behind. It magnifies dependency into a problem, it hides the way society organizes access to care as an individual solution and it creates the sort of choices we face in charting our pathways through care and connection.
Pugh presents, but does not resolve some social paradoxes. Americans, according to a 2011 survey she cites, are satisfied with their work — to the tune of 83%. Yet the insecurity is increasingly systematic. When asked, 70% say they work extra hours, more than in other countries. Full-time work is, it seems, increasingly a marker of identity, with many voting against public policies that are seen to be supporting a largely mythical population that “does not want to work.”
Often her interviewees maintain a respectful distance from their employers — sometimes blaming themselves, sometimes excusing the termination rationale, if one was even provided by employers. Others turn inward, feeling that their resolve has been tested and that terminations — even serial terminations — will lead to better days and greater opportunities, even though the odds are usually against them.
While the decline of unions receives proper attention, the text devotes little attention to changes in the nature of work: project-work, the new “human performance” movement, globalization, outsourcing, shift of pension supports to 401(k) plans, increased health care costs for both employee and employers, automation and the compartmentalization of work types. That said, her interviewees do touch on the issues. Regarding compartmentalization, “Lily” says:
They expect a lot more out of you these days than they used to. Because many firms have cut back , my firm, too cut back. So they’ve distributed that job among other people, split it up into little pieces and given everybody a little piece.
Pugh’s outrage is quiet but insistent.
Nostalgia served as a shoehorn for acquiescence, in which insecurity was framed as lamentable, but inevitable.
Pugh believes that in making tough decisions between career and family (in a tone radically contrary to that deployed in Lean In), the choice of priority-setting is principally left to employees, not to their organizations. Those who choose to prioritize care-giving over career are not rewarded, because the culture does not seem to grant such work what Pugh calls “the moral valence of duty” given to full-time paid work. The book concludes on a somber, thinly optimistic tone, calling upon employees to “forge a path without institutional help.”
Minor nits With the book designers / editors: The chapter endnotes — 40 pages of them — are sometimes extensive, 500-word bibliographic lists, interspersed with author commentary. But they are formatted as a single paragraph, rather than a list. With sociologists, not only Ms. Pugh: Please work it out with social psychologists so the hard-science types can get on board without feeling that the medicine is suspiciously sweet.
Why 99% of you should read it For the emotional and the rational: i.e., the polemics and the bibliography, respectively. It should be required reading for disenfranchised HR managers and those in “secure” public service positions outside Wisconsin.
Based on an advance courtesy copy provided by Amazon Vine and Oxford University Press (@OUPAcademic)