Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Work In The Precarious Economy

The Disruptables

Benjamin H. Snyder

Saturday Morning, 2014, by Joseph Peller; courtesy of the artist and ACA Galleries New York, New York.

In the culture of disruption, positive emotions are the only things that truly propel us forward—not because they allow us to better enjoy life, but because they are strategic.

Your next job will only last for three years,” says Bill Goldman, a former headhunter for a Fortune 500 company, to an audience of job seekers in a church in Richmond, Virginia.

The day is gone when you can give your career to your employer. He doesn’t want it and he won’t take it. So you need to take control of your career and do it yourself. You can either bumble through life from job to job, or you can make it so that jobs come to you rather than you having to go out and seek jobs.

Goldman’s counsel that we become more personally responsible for our careers is part of a larger discourse about how people should conduct themselves in today’s “flexible” economy. His directive echoes widespread calls for workers to become disruptable—that is, more entrepreneurial, risk ready, resilient, and open to change in order to thrive in workplaces that are more short-term oriented, unpredictable, and unstandardized. His advice, then, is about time—how people should expect their lives to unfold over time through a sequence of employment experiences—and about being—what kind of a person it is good to become in order to thrive in this temporal structure.

Time is political, particularly when it comes to work. We argue over labor policies and management practices that organize workers’ hours, days, weeks, months, and years, and draw on moralized conceptions of the human person—how people ought to be—in order to legitimate these arguments. Advocates of “disruptability” are engaging in a politics of work time that has begun to challenge the old nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics. Previous labor reforms were based on a rigid, standardized, and rationalized set of institutional temporalities—the eight-hour day, the forty-hour week, and the bounded career—that oriented workers’ lives to a long-term time horizon. These arrangements provided workers with a common system of standardized temporal patterns that gave them some predictability about the future. But they were also deeply problematic for workers in ways that sustained intense debate and activism.

The new politics of disruption, which focuses more on unstandardized work arrangements and do-it-yourself entrepreneurialism, is changing the ground on which this long-standing debate between workers and employers occurs. How do workers today deal with the mandate to make themselves disruptable? What conceptions of the good life must they cultivate? Even the word disruptable is ambiguous. A disruptable industry is fixated on established ways of doing things and therefore has fantastic potential for innovation. What, then, is a disruptable person? Is it someone who is likely to be victimized by disruption because of his or her commitment to old ways? Or is it someone who has chameleon-like qualities that allow that person to thrive amid constant change? Or is it, most likely, someone who is a bit of both?

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