By Phil Jones
As part of his ongoing project on employability for Autonomy, funded by CHASE, Phil Jones is writing a monthly blog fleshing out the research field. This is his third entry.
Across the advice offered by personal brand management and self-help texts, one finds a common belief that success relies on an ever-more thorough extension of work into leisure. To construct a successful self-brand, the literature says, the worker must not only market themselves with a personal website, maintain numerous social media profiles, control their Google results and start a blog, but continually network at parties, conferences and over social media – not to mention, the ongoing management of the worker’s appearance, voice and behaviour, so as to maintain a consistent self-image at all times.1 Purkiss and Royston-Lee go so far as to advise, ‘it helps if what you say in private does not clash with what you say at work’.2 The point being: a successful brand requires that your behaviour during work and leisure hours comprise a seamless whole. What you say, do, wear, consume, as well as who you spend time with and the events you attend, all go toward your personal brand. The assumption behind this vision of work is that labour is now entirely flexible: you no longer work in a particular industry, job or career but move between a variety of positions, and what binds these particular positions together is your wider self-image.
Purkiss and Royston Lee refer to this phenomenon using a financial metaphor as a ‘portfolio career’.3 One gains income through a variety of labour investments but maintains these investments through their market exposure, i.e. their personal brand. The metaphor perhaps hides more than it reveals, offering no sense of how brands and portfolios precisely relate to each other, let alone how each relates to a contemporary culture of work in which labour and leisure have become inseparable. The general idea, however, is evidently conversant with a more established discourse of labour relations, the implications of which shed some light on what the metaphor otherwise obfuscates. Human capital theory, a model of work devised by the neoliberal economists, Gary Becker and Theodor Schultz, defines the worker as an accumulation of personal investments that extend beyond the merely financial to incorporate education, hobbies, consumer habits and relationships. In his critique of their work, Michel Foucault labels this model worker an ‘entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer and being for himself the source of his earnings’.4
The paradigm for this comprehensive worker, Foucault suggests, is the firm itself, with the worker becoming a kind of micro-enterprise. And just like the contemporary corporation, Wendy Brown claims, the worker creates income streams through a portfolio logic, investing a little here and a little there, perhaps working for a company part-time, freelancing a few hours a week, networking on social media in the evening and attending requisite social events at the weekend.5
While Purkiss and Royston Lee’s use of a portfolio metaphor further muddies the already murky waters of self-branding, we might clear the murk by begrudgingly extending the human capital line of reasoning to say that every firm needs a brand, even if that firm is not a large capitalist organisation but a worker. The point here being that self-brand literature often covertly metaphorizes the worker as a firm without making the metaphor explicit – perhaps because it’s not a particularly attractive comparison. Corporation, as a cultural term, carries a lot of semantic baggage, often associated with bureaucratic drudgery, exploitative practises and social elites, while brands are the shiny, positive (if somewhat nebulous) messages that front these unseemly (but essential) aspects of the corporate world. Branding is undoubtedly a way of covertly legitimizing something unappealing. And much in this fashion, I conclude, management scholars often use the term ‘brand’ to covertly legitimize a model of the worker as firm, which is, more fundamentally, a deeply unappealing model of leisure as labour.
1 Schawbel, Dan, Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success, Kaplan (2009), pp54-62.
2 Purkiss, John & Royston Lee, David, Brand You, Pearson Books (2012), p23.
3 Purkiss, John & Royston Lee, David, Brand You, Pearson Books (2012), p4.
4 Foucault, Michel, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College De France, Palgrave (2008), p226.
5 Brown, Wendy, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Zone Books (2015), p34
Phil is a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex focusing on cultural representations of the digital economy. Alongside his report on employability for Autonomy, he is currently writing a book about tasking and crowdwork.