Identity Project

In the gig economy era, how are our identities shaped by work?

Across the world, ways of thinking about our relationship with work are shifting

The steelworks in Port Talbot, Wales, once among the largest in Europe, are the tallest buildings for miles in any direction. Fifty years ago, they loomed over the town as a symbol of prosperity; today they represent the loss of that success. In the 1960s, nearly 20,000 of a population of 50,000 worked there; now, only 4,000 do, roughly one in 10 residents.

“[The steel industry] was deeply entwined with the social life,” said Bleddyn Penny. He grew up in a similar Welsh community, and went on to study the post-World War II social history of Port Talbot’s steelworks for his PhD. “In the 1950s or ’60s, [steel companies] wanted to portray themselves as philanthropic- or socially-minded organisations. So they built sports clubs in Port Talbot, which are still there today. They had their own rugby teams – sporting and social activities either directly built or patronised by the steel works. It was quite a blurring of lines between civic and industrial life of Port Talbot.”

Our professions often define who we are, and our jobs shape our identities – we are quick to put people in slots according to what they do. But what happens when “work” no longer has a straightforward connotation?

In this episode, we look at another aspect of identity: work. Specifically, we investigate how work can mean very different things to different people, from the inhabitants of former company towns, like the steel miners of Port Talbot, to modern gig economy workers in cities around the world, facing uncertainty and a lack of benefits.

Llanwern Steelworks, Port Talbot, Wales. Photo credit: Les Haines/via Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]
Llanwern Steelworks, Port Talbot, Wales. Photo credit: Les Haines/via Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

There are plenty of places like Port Talbot around the world, towns where large companies have historically dominated their employees’ lives, or even where whole communities were planned and built by companies themselves for their workers. Everything down to the water supply can be, directly or indirectly, affected by the actions of one company.

After decades of decline, the Port Talbot steelworks are up for sale and may close completely if a buyer cannot be found. If they do close, it will likely lead to an entire generation lost to unemployment and poverty. For the town itself, it’s not just an economic loss, but a question of identity: “When you have this economic reliance or generational continuity, it engenders a kind of cultural identity,” Penny said. “Port Talbot still sees itself as an industrial town, as a working class town.” The closure of the steelworks could mean losing what is left of Port Talbot’s soul.

In London, just a few hours’ drive from Port Talbot, 20-year-old Daniel lives a very different kind of working life to that of a generational steel worker. As a cyclist for the food-delivery company Deliveroo, Daniel (whose name has been changed) is a so-called “gig economy” worker, someone who works irregular hours for irregular pay – a job with a lot of flexibility but little security. He loves that flexibility, as he balances work, study, and social life: “[It’s] what really drew me into the job,” he said. “It seemed almost too good to be true.”

People working for similar gig economy companies – like Uber, TaskRabbit, or Instacart – often feel the same way about their jobs. These companies claim they “empower” people to work on a schedule that works for them; the trade-off is that income is uneven and lower-paid than a lot of the jobs that they replaced in the overall economy, and some companies discourage – or outright ban – their employees from organising or joining established unions.

There have been many ways to organise the relationship between workers and work throughout human history. Today, what’s left of the Port Talbot-style company town and the gig economy sit at opposite ends of an employer-employee relationship spectrum. In places like Port Talbot, work and social life were rooted in a single company in a specific place; for the gig worker, all that flexibility comes with a lack of any institutional support.

So far, this series has focused on identity as something that people entrust governments with – for better or for worse – from ID cards like Aadhaar to leak-prone digital databases. But other institutions play equally pivotal roles in defining identity, and our employers top that list. What will our working lives look like in the coming decades – and as work evolves, how will it affect our identities?

Gig economy

The “gigs” of the gig economy are mostly short-term rather than permanent. This work overlaps with “freelancing,” “contracting,” and “temping” – all of which mean different things depending on industry or location – but the gig economy has some new peculiarities compared to older categories of work: the majority of the sector is technology companies who use apps to connect people who need labour with people who want to sell their labour. Gig economy workers often fall into a kind of grey area within existing employment laws around the world, with little to no protections – and these companies are waging a PR battle against the negative criticism they attract from a broad coalition of civil society organisations and governments.

A recent McKinsey report divides independent workers in the gig economy into four groups: “free agents,” “casual earners,” “reluctants,” and “financially-strapped.” Free agents and casual earners willingly do (and report liking) these jobs, either as a primary or supplemental income source. Reluctants and the financially-strapped participate in the gig economy out of necessity.

Up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States, or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population, engage in some form of independent work. Data: McKinsey
Up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States, or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population, engage in some form of independent work. Data: McKinsey

Daniel is one of these casual earners, making deliveries on the side to help pay for his education. But he’s not thrilled with the work: “I wouldn’t do this for a living, as it wouldn’t be very intellectually stimulating,” he said. Like those stuck in unemployment, there are psychological costs to having such a precarious working existence – and it’s lonely, too. Daniel found little social support or friendship from his colleagues. “My only interactions with other riders after training ended up being a nod of acknowledgement when we pass each other on the streets,” he said. “And if I ever got to speak with them, they always seemed to be overly-talkative – as if they’ve been lacking human connection.”

Amy Garland, chief marketing officer of the US-based KaZING, a gig economy app that focuses on services like cleaning or repairs, says that gig economy workers who like their jobs rate individual freedom – like control over their hours – as one of the biggest sources of job satisfaction. But this can run counter to job security. “I think the top concerns of workers in this sector are about consistency and job security,” she told me. “While flexibility, freedom, and independence are something that everybody values tremendously, it requires a bit of a balancing act.”

The things gig workers value – specifically individual freedom and flexibility – are the opposite of what the people living in towns like Port Talbot have historically valued. In Port Talbot, the broad sphere of the workplace is more of a community, or even a family: generations of people working the same jobs, alongside generations of their neighbours.

The steelworks of Port Talbot are still economically important, and they support a number of local businesses. But as a social and cultural centre, they don’t command life in the way they once did. “The social aspect that the works used to sustain – the sports clubs and hobby clubs – aren’t there anymore,” said Penny. The things that used to go beyond the transactional nature of the employer-employee relationship have been slowly killed off.

“For many people, it was more than earning money, it was social,” said Penny. “They talked a lot about the glory days of working men’s clubs and pub culture, but most of the socialising was done in the workplace. They were truly ‘workmates’ because they spent so much time together at work, and then when they lost their jobs they were deprived of quite an important social fabric.”

For more than a century, the residents of Port Talbot had a central well of collective identity. This came not just from working and living alongside each other, but from the social and economic life of their community being dominated by a single large industry. Modern jobs, especially those in which interaction is almost wholly digital, might on the surface look like they can’t offer that same sense of communal identity – they both can and cannot. Lots of cities – particularly in higher-income countries – have clusters of remote workers, working alongside each other on different things, but still providing community and social outlets.

That isn’t the same as what came before, though, and that change is clearly unsatisfying to many – especially since this new clustering tends to happen in cities, leaving smaller towns behind. As one mode of job satisfaction fades and another emerges, what are we losing – and what could we gain?

Work identity

Some argue that while many newer tech companies are creating new jobs, they aren’t “real jobs” – the kind that come with good benefits and predictable hours. This was far from the only kind of work in the 20th century, but it was what work in places like Port Talbot looked like – and even if you didn’t have a good job in a company town, it was what you might aspire to. The disappearance of that way of work is a major source anxiety around the world – and it’s not immediately clear how some of the new work identities, like those forming around the gig economy, can offer an easy replacement.

A future of fractious, uncertain employment isn’t just an issue confined to Europe and the US: lower-income countries in Africa, Asia, and South America are also experiencing a similar shift. A 2016 study by the Oxford Internet Institute found that a lack of bargaining power was one of the four main concerns for workers in new digital economies in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia, for example. And while most governments attempt to address unemployment, like creating programs to retrain people with new skills, that is largely only found in higher-income countries. Most of the world’s population is experiencing temporary employment not as an aberration from the norm, but as just what modern, developed economies look like. That’s going to require a very different conversation about the links between personal identity and labour than in a context of an industry-dominated world disintegrating.

Work is, by nature, dynamic, and issues like globalisation, automation, and worker displacement are just the latest manifestations of that dynamism. But that also means our ideas about work and the self are inherently unstable – every intimate, personalised relationship rooted in work is only ever built on a shaky foundation. For millions of workers, work now means anxiety-inducing uncertainty.

Regardless of whether someone in Port Talbot worked for the steel industry directly or indirectly, it was at the heart of the place. Replacing lost jobs isn’t just about wages and employment; it’s about filling those gaps in individual and collective identities. “When the last plant finally went, there was a kind of collective dislocation, an identity lost, a sense of, ‘What is this town here for?’” Penny said. “They have to create a new narrative about the town...a search for that one thing that justifies their existence. But what is their story going to be?”

This piece is part of The ID Question, a series examining how identity is changing in the modern world – from ID cards to Facebook profiles, work life to indigenous rights. You can explore the whole series, including videos, a reading list, and more, at How We Get To Next. The ID Question on How We Get To Next is published under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.