Work, Debt and Identity

There is an interview today on The Atlantic with Allison J. Pugh, author of The Tumbleweed Society.  Pugh has written about the toll job insecurity takes on a person’s relationships and sense of identity.

“The work ethic, and all the different ways in which people define that, is a really powerful way in which people define themselves as honorable in our society,” Pugh said. “What that does is it makes involuntary job loss all the more painful. Because it’s not just about interruptions to your income.. it’s also chipping away at how we think of ourselves—as honorable people, as people who can stand up as full citizens in our social world and say, ‘I belong here. I’m a contributing member. I work hard.'”

One of the main themes in the novel Identity Theft, and one that has not been commented on much in reviews, is the central character’s struggle with identity as she faces the loss of her career. Maybe it does not come up much because when a character is female we’re primed to think her central conflict is related to romantic love and the main question the novel will try to solve is whether or not she will find love or a sense of her own attractiveness by the end.

Candi’s main struggle, though, is her sense that she is not valuable. That her particular skills, being a good, reliable worker, do not mean anything. This is tied more to her financial problems than body image issues. When people experience poverty they usually feel ashamed, and a natural result of this is that they tend to retreat from friendships.

As Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, wrote in his book The Shame of Poverty:

With economic development and growing individualization, social status has increasingly come to be associated with achievement, rather than with ascribed characteristics such as age, birth right, and gender. Most recently, wealth, expenditure and consumption have emerged as the predominant measures of personal success…Psychologists demonstrate that people experiencing shame not only feel small and humiliated, they are likely to experience social isolation which is either forced up on them, a form of exile, or chosen by them so as to avoid the possibility of public shaming. They are also prone to feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide.

…the sense of shame is likely also to be prolonged because most people in poverty will generally already be doing as much as they can to escape from poverty…People in poverty lack the resources necessary to reciprocate, to support wives and husbands, to bring up children or even, adopting the language of stigma, to be fully human. Moreover, should they fail to appreciate the degree of their inadequacy and the depth of their degradation, society takes it upon itself to shame them into changing their ways or, with similar intent, to stigmatize them, thereby reinforcing the social divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and often actively discriminating against them, ‘the poor.’

…Respondents in all seven national settings sought to avoid the possibilities of shaming by stopping going out with friends or inviting people home to eat…. The change was usually justified as a measure to reduce cost, but it also meant that they were less likely to be placed in a position in which they would subsequently need to reciprocate in ways that they could not afford…Avoiding social life meant avoiding shame, but also resulted in a decline in the number of people that would be available to assist in the event of a crisis, thereby adding to the vulnerability of life in poverty.

One of the fascinating things in the interview with Pugh is that she found that when people lose a job through downsizing or layoffs, they tend to blame themselves. Apparently we are so invested in the mythos that we live in a world where hard work and merit are rewarded, we would rather blame ourselves than give up on that notion.

“But it’s like they’ve given up on this other huge thing,” Pugh said, “which is: Do employers owe any kind of loyalty to their employees? That’s not a conversation that we have anymore.”

In Identity Theft, it is only at the end, when Candi has been laid low by the events of the story, that she thinks to pose this very question. (Albeit in different words.)

Is society entirely impersonal? Do we owe nothing to one another?

It is the constantly re-enforced shame that comes in the form of calls from creditors and her social isolation that makes Candi vulnerable to Ethan’s game. Because her social world has contracted to posts on Facebook, the only relationship she is going to find is one that comes right to her. And the one that happens to fall in her lap is so magical it has the power to soothe all of her feelings of being useless and not a full member of society. Being courted by a rock star is the only thing, really, with the power to overcome all of her vulnerability and insecurity. So it becomes central to her sense of self.

I recommend The Atlantic article. I think it is important for the narrative about insecure employment, debt and wage stagnation to be broadened to include all of its impacts on relationships, culture and society.

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