Consuming work and managing employability: Studentsʼ work orientations and the process of contemporary job search
Sammanfattning: Unemployment and precarity have become key features of 21st century work. Employability is presented as a solution to these issues. Individuals are exhorted to manage their employability, in order to be able to exercise choice in the labour market. While employability is individualsʼ responsibility, governments, employers and educational bodies simply provide opportunities for its development. Higher education is a key site for this process, as employability rhetoric increasingly informs policy and practice. It is founded on rhetoric that emphasises flexibility, skills and marketability, shaping students in certain ways with the risk of being deemed unemployable as the consequence of disengagement. At the same time, there has been a rise in employer presence on university campuses. Recruitment is no longer its key feature. Traditional ʻmilkroundʼ recruitment has been replaced by year round marketing campaigns. As a result, students are continually exposed to a selection of employers promoting a specific image of work and work orientations. The theoretical framework of this study is informed by works of Antonio Gramsci and Mikhail Bakhtin. Gramsciʼs notion of ʻcommon senseʼ is central to analysing the rhetoric on work and employability present on campus. I also give voice to students by recounting how they as ʻdialogical selvesʼ engage with such ʻcommon senseʼ. These issues are explored through an analysis of data gathered during seventeen months of fieldwork. This includes longitudinal interviews with students, participant observation, documents, interviews with careers advisors and non-participant observation of career consultations. From this, I argue that there was a strongly normative image of work constructed around an orientation I term ʻconsumption of workʼ. This image was closely associated with consumption opportunities, marketed to students through corporate presence on campus. ʻConsumption of workʼ was central to shaping studentsʼ work orientations and only few of them resisted the ʻcommon senseʼ. Those who made ʻalternativeʼ choices articulated doubt about these, with the challenge to employability as a key reason for it. Employability was presented to students as a lifelong project of the self, where constant acquisition, development and selling of skills were necessary to maintain a position in the labour market. Many students embraced the rhetoric of skill ʻpossessionʼ, but were ʻplaying the gameʼ when ʻdemonstratingʼ skills. Conforming to what the employers were willing them to ʻdemonstrateʼ and understanding how to do this became the primary condition for achieving employability.
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