Research Findings

The New Economy as Multi-Level Marketing Scheme: Career Coaches and Unemployment in the Age of Insecurity


February 17, 2022

The forty unemployed professionals who made it to this meeting at Jump Start Job Club are prepared to chant. Arranged in folding chairs with Styrofoam cups in hand, their eyes are fixed on their lines, projected on a PowerPoint slide: “I’m not over-qualified, I’m absolutely qualified!”

The bubbly presenter orchestrates: “Let’s say it all together!”

The crowd looks like a twenty-year reunion of the characters in the movie Office Space: not its scheming anti-work hero, but the background cast, the characters who decided to stick with the company until the layoffs came around.

We chant together in drab, office birthday-party tones:

“I’m not over-qualified, I’m absolutely qualified!”

“Again!” the speaker implores.

“I’m not over-qualified, I’m absolutely qualified!”

The presenter at Jump Start this week is a woman that calls herself Absolutely Amy, a self-declared “career expert” on a mission to help one million unemployed professionals find work. Absolutely Amy is one face in a booming career success industry that has gained cultural traction as employment has grown increasingly precarious. Self-styled career experts like Amy are now important intermediaries in the new economy, helping workers to make sense of broken career ladders and plan tentative reaches upwards.

What’s Wrong with You?

In a new article in Work & Occupations, I explore what exactly these new career experts are teaching and how their advice reconfigures workers’ relationship to the job market. Through observations of career coaches and their clients in “job search clubs,” I analyze how coaches diagnose the problem job seekers face and how they propose to fix it.

I find that career coaches offer workers a range of different solutions for overcoming job market struggles, from LinkedIn makeovers, to coding bootcamps, to guided meditation for positive thinking.

All of the expert discourses ultimately highlight individual deficiencies as the root of workers’ woes — and yet, the career success industry as a whole is extremely popular with the unemployed. I argue that it is the range of possible diagnoses on offer that explains their gravitational force. The diversity of expert discourses provides job seekers with an empowering sense of choice in interpreting their situation and acting in the labor market.

The industry shuffles through possible deficiencies until it finds one the worker will accept: Aren’t your skills lagging behind? No? Then perhaps you aren’t leveraging your network effectively? Oh, then you must not have found your “calling” yet.

The article analyzes three ideal types of career experts — Self Help Gurus, Job Coaches, and Skill-certifiers — distinguished according to the alternative explanations they offer workers for their job market struggles. In doing so, it also pursues a larger question about the origins of ideology in the new economy: who is Absolutely Amy? Where is she coming from and why does she teach workers what she does?

Self-Help Gurus

The experts I dub “Self-help Gurus” declare that it is job seekers’ lack of motivation that is the main obstacle to finding good work. Self-help Gurus position themselves as experts in helping the unemployed overcome “limiting beliefs” that are holding them back from career self-actualization.

A seminar I participated in titled “Programming your Mind for Success” exemplifies this approach. Allison, an HR director-turned-coach, wears a blue power suit as she guides the job seekers through a visualization exercise meant to overcome “negative filters.” Allison tells the fifty-odd attendees to rise from their chairs, close their eyes, and strike a “power pose.”

In this empowered posture, she instructs us to imagine ourselves landing our dream job and to visualize, in great detail, the moment we are given the job offer. Eyes still closed, Allison then instructs us to imagine this scene of success playing out in an imaginary picture frame in front of us, to reach out and grab the picture frame, hold it above our heads, and then to plunge our bodies through it to absorb all of the positivity from that moment.

When our guru brings us back to reality, she sends us off with a broad and generous smile, saying “I know you are going to get the most amazing job ever.”

Self-help Gurus like Allison teach the unemployed that the main obstacle they face is internal — a bad attitude — and offer a wide range of mystical and pseudo-scientific practices meant to induce positive thinking.

Job Coaches

“Job Coaches,” by contrast, teach workers that their job market struggles are primarily a technical problem — to land their dream job, workers just need to master job-hunting skills like networking, resume formatting, and interview techniques.

In one group session I attended, a peppy job coach named Karen taught two dozen unemployed professionals how to “network with a purpose.” There are plenty of good jobs out there, Karen insisted, you just need to know how to sniff them out. She then introduced a PowerPoint presentation outlining the basics of leveraging relationships for job leads: targeting useful acquaintances, engaging the target with “light” (read: non-political) current events, and strategically steering the conversation towards job openings.

The assembled unemployed were then ordered to practice. Armed with recently polished personal brands, we shuffle into triads and awkwardly probed our fellow attendees about their contacts.

The job market lesson offered by Job Coaches like Karen is clear: wonderful opportunities are out there; we just need to master job-hunting techniques for finding them.

Skill-Certifiers

And finally, “Skill-certifiers” explain to workers that their job market struggles are rooted in a human capital deficiency — that they need to learn new skills and earn new certifications to keep up with employers’ rapidly rising expectations for workers. There is a “hiring spree” happening, as Skill-certifiers like to explain, but you need to “be updated” to take advantage of it.

Conveniently, these experts work at various public and private job-training and certification schools. Job seekers can remedy their skill deficiency and impress employers, they suggest, by paying for night courses in project management, software development, or Excel.

Puppets or Preachers?

Who are these experts and where are their explanations coming from?

The Marxist-oriented observer rightfully suspects that these insistent messages of individual responsibility are somehow being handed down from on high — that somewhere behind Absolutely Amy is a ruling class puppeteer. But my fieldwork suggests otherwise.  

The vast majority of coaches I observed and interviewed were a lot like their clients. They, too, were recent victims of job market dislocation and are simply trying to parlay their own downward mobility into a new professional opportunity as a freelance expert selling career advice. Amy and Allison could no longer hold a steady HR position, Karen couldn’t survive as an adjunct professor, and many of the Skill-certifiers I spoke to were laid off from IBM and Dell.

Career coaches thus occupy a unique position in the economy: themselves evicted from stable, salaried work by fraying employment contracts, they assume the role of street preacher, evangelizing for the ideological infrastructure of the new labor regime.

They do not take marching orders from capital. The diagnoses and solutions they peddle emerge from their effort to make themselves relevant, and to scrape out a living. Of course they don’t offer a structural interpretation of unemployment; that story might put them out of work. 

Read more

Patrick Sheehan. “Unemployment Experts: Governing the Job Search in the New Economy” in Work and Occupations 2021.

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