Dependent Contractors

“Are you tired of hearing that the 21st century is the century of the entrepreneur?,” asks a Fast Company article. “Well, get used to it,” it continues, “because the jobs are gone, and if it’s ...

“Are you tired of hearing that the 21st century is the century of the entrepreneur?,” asks a Fast Company article. “Well, get used to it,” it continues, “because the jobs are gone, and if it’s not the century of the entrepreneur, it will be the century of poverty.”

According to most dictionary definitions, an “entrepreneur” is a person who starts a business and, by risk and investment, attempts to make money. Individuals like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Oprah Winfrey come to mind as some of the most iconic entrepreneurs of our time. Business and industry literatures often expand on this definition with ideas about innovation, keen opportunity recognition, hard work, unshakable self-belief and, often, rags-to-riches narratives. “Alas,” explains a commentator to a post proposing yet another definition of entrepreneur, by contrast, “most of us fit this [alternative, less glamorous] definition: an entrepreneur is someone who, rather than working 8 hours a day for someone else, would prefer to work 18 hours a day for [him or herself]. (And one can then embellish it with half the pay, twice the stress, but ten times the fun, etc.).”

Included in the range of definitions of an entrepreneur—which puts billionaire celebrities alongside mom-and-pop shop owners who hover around the break-even line—is the assumption of the creation of a business, in the sense of a legally recognized entity that engages in trading activities. If we take “entrepreneur” to stand more broadly for the wide array of individuated, insecure, and contingent types of work—independent contractors, freelancers, agency temps, on-call workers, and “gig economy” workers—then perhaps the Fast Company warning is not as exaggerated as it first seems.

According to a 2014 survey, 52 million Americans (a third of the US working population) are part of this contingent workforce. In these jobs, you are your own boss, and you (sometimes) choose your own hours. In exchange for this flexibility, you lose the security of a monthly paycheck and benefits such as health insurance and paid sick leave. The price of gaining day-to-day microfreedoms is often a tendency toward self-exploitation and losing the ability to trust in a secure long-term future. People often have to cobble together multiple activities to make ends meet: writing code from home for companies intermediated by a microwork website by day, driving for Uber by night, and doing weekend temp work as a retail company sales rep to round out the week.

But what about a world in which all people, even middle-class white-collar workers in corporate America (the seeming polar opposite of entrepreneurs), are expected to behave and transact as if they are independent businesses providing temporary solutions to other businesses (otherwise known as “their employers”)? Would we all be “entrepreneurs,” with our personal branding websites (or at least LinkedIn profiles), our résumés detailing the integrated services we are prepared to offer to companies, and our declining belief in the idea of a job for life? Is poverty really the alternative if we are unable to behave suitably entrepreneurially, and we can no longer expect the state or the corporation to look after our long-term security and well-being? Anthropologist Ilana Gershon, in her new book, Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today, suggests that this may be the future we are heading for. She describes how the new “self-as-business” way of thinking fundamentally changes how we understand the nature of work.

In a world where everyone will need to become some form of entrepreneur, what kind of society will emerge?

Friedrich von Hayek, to whom Gershon ironically dedicates her book, might have endorsed these modern-day developments.1 The libertarian economist famously praised individual economic freedom as the only sure means of safeguarding broader personal and political freedoms and ensuring a well-organized and liberal society. His argument is based on the ability of individual actors to possess context-specific knowledge important for economic decision-making that, in aggregate, leads to efficient economies. In a world where everyone will need to become some form of entrepreneur—because of business outsourcing, automation, and the decline of the welfare state—what kind of society will emerge?

Although the dedication is Gershon’s only explicit mention of Hayek, her accessible and timely book provides a trenchant critique of his central ideas, through meticulously documented ethnographic data about today’s job market in the United States. Gershon addresses a Hayekian scenario in which individual workers (white-collar corporate ones, no less) are increasingly expected to behave as if they are small businesses or entrepreneurs, who freely transact with companies to provide bundles of services. She sets out to tackle the modern question of how jobless individuals—and recent college graduates in particular—access crucial knowledge about how to pursue white-collar employment in the United States. Her findings were collected over the course of a year of interviewing people involved in the hiring process—job-seekers, new job holders, recent job quitters, career counselors, hiring managers, recruiters, and HR managers—in the San Francisco Bay area. Gershon, who teaches at Indiana University, brings the insights of her discipline to bear on reading the nuances in people’s comments and theorizing the shifts occurring in the economy.

In recent decades, according to Gershon, the way in which employment is conceptualized has shifted away from a long-standing model, often linked to the ideas of John Locke, of self-owning workers who rent their time and capacities to an employer. In this old model, parts of a person were inalienable: “you could sell your labor and retain possession of your person.” Workers retrieved themselves at the end of the workday and enjoyed a relatively defined work/life boundary.

In her conversations with people and as a participant-observer of workshops for job-seekers, Gershon discovers that, in today’s world, the model has changed. Instead of the self-as-property metaphor, we have a model of self-as-business (and of the individual as the “CEO of Me Inc.”). In the new economy, work interactions are structured as if individual workers are a bundle of flexible, customizable services (assets, qualities, skills, experiences, and relationships) they seek to provide to companies to solve market-based problems on a temporary basis. Workers exchange job security for freedom to transact as businesses providing services to other businesses. “What you do is create a partnership that distributes responsibility and risk so that every ‘business’ involved can maintain its own autonomy in the market.” Such responsibility, for taking care of one’s own healthcare needs or managing one’s own brand (which is itself a full-time job), falls to the individual-as-business rather than to the employer.

In a series of detailed descriptions of the activities surrounding job seeking, hiring, firing, and switching jobs, Gershon finds that the booming job-seekers’ advice industry is out of sync with the actual priorities of hirers. Voluntary church groups, university career counseling services, and corporate recruiters disseminate information about how to produce standardized representations (such as CVs, business cards, and online social media profiles) to enable easy comparability for employers.

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Yet at the same time, counselors coach job-seekers on how to stand out in particular ways (within these standardized frameworks) through personal branding. They dispense systematic techniques for developing and deploying a self-brand, an online and on-paper identity that is to remain stable through job changes and that is reducible to several key words that capture one’s “authentic self.”

Yet these key words are not supposed to be explicitly articulated. Rather, one must exude their qualities so that other people are able to “sense” the words that make up one’s personal brand. Gershon introduces us to Pepper, the charismatic and relentlessly upbeat Google recruiter who attributes her own job to her ability to project adjectives like “positive” and “happy.” Yet it turns out that this intense work of self-branding is not actually visible or important from the perspective of the people doing the hiring. In other words, the primary form of information that counselors advise job-seekers to transmit to companies is irrelevant.

Another mainstay of the job-search procedure is the awkward task of networking. Counselors provide advice about how to cultivate relationships that may prove beneficial in the future, a process that job-seekers find excruciating in its obvious instrumentality. LinkedIn is the primary forum through which individuals are meant to conceptualize themselves as the center of their network. They attempt to maintain this network by keeping their personal profiles self-brand-aligned, congratulating one another on new jobs and promotions, and requesting their “first-degree” contacts to introduce them to “second-degree” connections who can position their CVs at the top of the application pile. Yet striving to secure personal connection to anyone in the target company seems strangely futile. It is unlikely, Gershon explains, that the random second-degree contact will have any relation to the team or department involved in the hiring process.

And, it turns out, no one knows how to use LinkedIn or reliably interpret other users’ LinkedIn profile activity. At the end of a long interview with a college senior, Tiffany, about how she used LinkedIn in preparation for finding a post-graduation career, Gershon asked her whether she had any questions. “Yes,” Tiffany replied, “how do I use LinkedIn?”

The work of self-branding is not only a full-time concern in the sense of projecting one’s authentic key words through behavior and online presence. It can also be an act stamped physically onto bodies, as in the case of Chris, who faced long periods without securing contracting jobs. He began to prepare his body to deal with what he feared would be his eventual homelessness by sleeping on the floor, “so I could get used to sleeping on a sidewalk or on the dirt.”

This darker side of “being a business” emerges through the words and attitudes of Gershon’s interlocutors and also through her ability to highlight the broader structural issues and inequalities. Herein lies her trenchant but too-subtle critique of Hayek.

Gershon’s understated critique of liberal economics is that communication between job-seekers and job-givers (or, in Gershon’s terms, between different businesses partnering with one another) is not characterized by a credible exchange of signals and free flow of information. Instead, actors operate on the basis of different, mismatching sets of information and a yet-unformed codebook for interpreting actions.

The advice industry gives workers the semblance of agency and control, while also normalizing the precariousness generated by the contemporary employment model.

Most important are the structural inequalities that are obscured by the practices she describes. The emerging industry around advice for branding and networking one’s way into a job—which is mostly invisible to the gaze of hirers—serves to focus attention on the emotional and self-disciplinary labor of workers, as if they have the agency to influence significantly the hiring process. The paradox of needing to present oneself as both flexible/adaptable and reliable/consistent, the fluidity of jobs (and the expected mobility of persons), and the shift of responsibility for risk and failure onto job-seekers: all obscure system-wide instabilities beyond any one person’s control. The dilemmas job-seekers face are preeminently structural, yet they are presented in ways as if “these are problems that can be solved [with a new app, new technology, and new kinds of emotional labor on the part of workers], rather than dilemmas that are always going to be present when you apply a particular model.”

The advice industry gives workers the semblance of agency and control, while also normalizing the precariousness generated by the contemporary employment model. It makes people more accepting of increasingly disempowering employment relations. It masks the inequalities generated by sexism, racism, ageism, and elite-network-ism (which Gershon aptly calls a shift from an old boys’ network to a young boys’ network). People like the contractor Chris take on the work of readying their bodies for hardship, rather than agitating for labor and welfare rights.

What is worse is when companies mix their metaphors. They often act as if they are traditional employers who impose on workers the parameters for completing jobs, while only offering the terms of subcontracting in return. An example is Uber dictating to drivers the hours they are permitted to work, thus undermining the “freedom” gained by being an “independent” contractor. “Workers decide to take up the self-as-business model as fully as possible and end up being frustrated by a corporation’s decision to do the same only when the company finds it convenient.”

In a broader perspective, what results is a disabled capacity of workers collectively to lobby for a minimum wage (a salary being a price subjected to the market), healthcare benefits (because a self-as-business needs to take care of its own assets), and broader labor rights. People are backed into becoming permanent freelancers, or what Gershon calls “dependent contractors.”

White-collar corporate America is not the first place where workers have faced this type of transition. Many of the themes Gershon traces have long been familiar within the anthropology of development. Microcredit borrowers, micro-entrepreneurs, multilevel marketing agents, rural extension agents, day laborers, and online microworkers are the epitome of the self-as-business concept in the global south and the forerunners of the Uber drivers and TaskRabbits of today’s global north.2 The anthropological literature has long described how companies, social enterprises, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and governments have stripped away paternalistic labor relations, dismantled safety nets, and devolved the risk of failure and responsibility for poverty onto individuals. At the same time, such changes are couched in the language of “empowerment” and economic growth.

In my own research among “iAgent entrepreneurs” in northwestern rural Bangladesh, young women from impoverished families are lured into work outside the home through the promise of stable, salaried, respectable work in an NGO. Yet what they find is that, instead of receiving a monthly salary, they must accept loans from a national bank. Instead of receiving their training and uniforms for free, they must pay for it with their loans. And instead of delivering much-needed goods and services to the village community for free, they must extract fees from the poor people receiving these services in order to repay their loans. Far from being respected NGO workers, iAgents are judged by their neighbors to be lowly hawkers. When they fail to earn enough and sink further into debt, the young women are blamed by the coordinating social enterprise for not working hard enough and for not efficiently converting their family members and neighbors into “clients.”

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The awkwardness that Gershon’s white-collar job-seekers experience when told to network everywhere contains these echoes of development practitioners instructing poor people to use their social capital to convert their kinship relationships into commercial opportunities. With this semblance of agency also comes individualized blame for failure. “Networking has become a very conscious and sometimes burdensome form of expressing agency. People are constantly told … to transform even the most casual conversation with a newly met person into an opportunity to circumvent the obstacles. … Thus networking is always hopeful. But as someone fails repeatedly to get a job, the network also becomes a sign of their inability to elicit proper social support from their community.”

Such experiences mirror poverty entrepreneurship programs, whose staff, for instance, find “little sympathy for a downline [recruited sales agent] who missed a target because they had to attend a funeral, claiming that ‘it’s not an excuse … you meet people there at the funerals.’… Every moment and interaction … —sustenance, worship, grief, and leisure—can and should be appropriated for commercial ends as the world of informal social ties becomes indistinguishable from free market capitalism” (emphasis added).3 These work structures, which eliminate the boundary between personal life and work, entail the colonization of the one for the other, while engaging the self-as-business in the exhausting processes of self-monitoring, self-discipline, self-exploitation, and self-blame.

In the case of the iAgent women entrepreneurs and millions of people similar to them around the world, failure and debt can be so shameful that they drive people to flee their communities or attempt suicide. How will middle-class Americans cope when “employment” no longer offers them the ability to live a respectable life?

Perhaps we can learn from the experiences of the global poor when looking ahead to the future of work in corporate America. Marketization and financialization became inescapable features of development. Similarly, “employees” in the US are looking more like financialized bundles providing short-term partnership, rather than holistic human beings with physical and social needs that the paternalistic companies of old helped to meet. Gershon’s fine-grained engagement with this emergent phenomenon shows us how Hayekian ideas of individuated economic actors begin to play out and generate contradictions in the everyday trials and tribulations of aspirant white-collar workers. It gives us a glimpse of a world in which everyone needs to become an entrepreneur—or remain down and out in the new economy. icon

  1. Yet Hayek also argued for the role of state-led social safety nets, which the current US system lacks, to prevent entrepreneurially disabled people from falling into poverty.
  2. For microcredit borrowers, see Lamia Karim, Microfinance and its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh (University of Minnesota Press, 2011); micro-entrepreneurs, see Julia Elyachar, Markets of Dispossession: NGOs, Economic Development, and the State in Cairo (Duke University Press, 2005); multilevel marketing agents, see Catherine Dolan and Linda Scott, “Lipstick Evangelism: Avon Trading Circles and Gender Empowerment in South Africa,” Gender and Development, volume 17, no. 2 (2009), pp. 203–218; rural extension agents, see Julia Huang, “The Ambiguous Figures of Social Enterprise: Gendered Flexibility and Relational Work Among the iAgents of Bangladesh,” American Ethnologist (forthcoming 2017); day laborers, see Jan Breman, Footloose Labour: Working in India’s Informal Economy (Cambridge University Press, 1996); online microworkers, see Vili Lehdonvirta, “Algorithms that Divide and Unite: Delocalization, Identity, and Collective Action in ‘Microwork,’” in Space, Place and Global Digital Work, edited by J. Flecker (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016).
  3. Catherine Dolan, “The ‘Enterprising Self’ at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Avon Cosmetic’s Repurposing of South Africa’s ‘Informal’ Workers,” Paper presented at the 20th Anniversary Conference & Alumni Reunion, London School of Economics, September 9, 2011.
Featured image: North American Cycle Courier Championship: NACCC NYC 2016. Photograph by waterj2 / Flickr