The “Great Resignation” has fueled growing conversations about the labor conditions facing American workers today. Millions of workers in this country, according to recent statistics, have left or are in the process of leaving jobs they have deemed unfulfilling in order to seek out something better. We are living in a moment where workers have both the ability and inclination to find new work if they are unhappy with their current job.
This moment—which is fundamentally about how workers think about jobs and strategize about their future employment—raises at least as many questions as it answers. For instance, how are workers who regularly face unpredictable schedules, pay, and changing employment status—sometimes called non-standard work conditions—able to manage job changes?
This is far from an insignificant number of workers, with some studies suggesting more than one in four adult Americans are employed in nonstandard jobs today. Further, how might one’s past work history shape the types of jobs a person may seek in the future? These are labor issues that transcend the current pandemic moment and speak to the broader state of our labor market.
In a recently published paper, we sought to investigate how workers manage contested work identities across non-standard employment contexts. Basically, these are jobs where workers feel judged or stigmatized by others based on characteristics of their work. We compared two groups of workers that engage in non-standard jobs that differ in the nature and degree of stigma they face: sex workers and frontline restaurant workers.
Whereas sex workers face a high degree of moral judgement based on their work, frontline restaurant workers contend with demeaning social characterizations of their jobs as “unskilled” and low-status. Bringing these two groups together in our research provided us with a unique opportunity to illuminate how workers navigate nonstandard jobs using strategies shaped by the reputation of the job itself.
We found that workers from both groups actively frame their jobs—or at least their relationships to their jobs—more positively. Yet, how they do so differs on two fronts: “identity work” (how workers frame their jobs) and job bundling (what jobs workers seek to combine together).
Sex workers we interviewed sought to normalize the reputation of their jobs, which ranged from pornographic film acting to escorting. Workers emphasized that their job was “work just like any other job”, often drawing attention to the professionalism and bureaucracy that is a common part of work on porn sets. Further, having engaged in jobs that are highly stigmatized, many of these workers end up “sticking to it” with future employment. That is, they deepen their commitment to this line of work by identifying with it while also bundling together part-time and contract-based jobs within the same industry.
By contrast, we found that frontline restaurant workers tend to downplay their engagement with their serving, bartending, and hosting jobs. Many of those we interviewed rejected being called “restaurant workers” entirely, preferring to focus instead on their identities garnered from other activities and roles, such as being a college student or an aspiring “professional.” The job search strategies these workers use reflect this same orientation. By “opting for alternatives,” many of the workers in this group deliberately seek part-time employment outside of the restaurant industry in order to shore up their work identities.
As we argue, the distinct strategies that non-standard workers in this study use provide valuable insights into how people attempt to manage their work identities (which are fluid) in conjunction with their job search strategies (which are ongoing out of necessity). Of course, many other factors affect who has access to what jobs in our society; persistent forms of racism, sexism, and classism play a large role in excluding some workers from otherwise desirable employment opportunities. Yet our study points to more subtle processes that also affect how workers manage their employment today: the distinctly positive or negative reputation of jobs themselves in our society.
Which brings us back to the Great Resignation. While many workers are moving away from jobs due to unsatisfactory material conditions, these shifts happen in a context where workers are strategically thinking about what certain job changes will mean for their own work identity, tied to past, present, and future employment. For some, this can mean leaning into different roles within the same industry while for others, pursing opportunities further afoot. In either case, the way people see themselves through their work is reflected in a job search process that has proved ongoing in an era of rising nonstandard work.
Eli R. Wilson and David Scheiber. “Sticking to it or Opting for Alternatives: Managing Contested Work Identities in Nonstandard Work” in Qualitative Sociology 2022.
Image: Astrid Westvang via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)