Kicking job seekers when they’re down

Imagine you are a so-called human resources manager.

In an economy where there are many more job seekers than jobs, and in which it is possible that there will never ever again be enough jobs to employ people who want or need work,[1] your boss is thrilled because competition between job seekers can reduce wages, but you are inundated with applications and résumés and cover letters with no relief in sight. Moreover, because so many people are desperate for work, a fair number of these documents come from people who are not only not qualified but who are not even remotely qualified for any of the few positions you have to offer.

You desperately need a way to reduce the number of applications to something manageable. Enter modern technology and the web-based job application. This compels job seekers to re-enter all the information on—and perhaps some that they would otherwise omit from—their résumés in a form that a computer can process. Moreover, because filling in these on line forms is extraordinarily time-consuming, the system imposes a considerable penalty for submitting applications. It effectively acts to discourage job seekers, immediately operating to reduce your work load.

Next, computers act quantitatively. While you cannot use them to actually evaluate qualifications, you can use them to filter applications. Particularly in many of the ways in which discrimination has been suspected (but is, of course, difficult to prove) in the job market.[2] Algorithms can be devised to recognize gaps in employment history, for example, and quantify them both by number of such gaps and the total length of time unaccounted for. Even more easily, people who have long work histories or who graduated from college decades ago can be spotted as being older workers. People who are presently unemployed can be identified by the ending date of their last employment. A credit check can be performed automatically. And of course you ask about criminal convictions; some might actually admit to them (particularly for any sort of public employment where even expunged criminal records can be easily checked).

Computers are much more difficult to use to seek out qualified candidates. There are tools marketed to qualitative researchers and are presumably also available to human resources departments that help with content analysis, essentially reducing it to a quantitative task. These can recognize key phrases and words, notice how far apart they are, and categorize them accordingly. That’s about the limit of it. The rest of the work has to be done by you, the human resources manager, and you have an interest in making this—bloody, you might admit—process as simple and as quick (but you’ll call it “efficient”) as possible.

None of this is good news for anyone who has encountered difficulties in a world of increasing inequality. These systems are designed to filter such people out, in essence to kick them when they are already down, and to kick them all the harder the further down they are. Such people have little choice but to find employment through their social networks, and if, like mine, their social networks have not been helpful in finding work, they are likely doomed.

There’s plenty of advice out there recommending “entrepreneurship.”[3] But this assumes a particular set of skills which are also the skills which are most valued—and promoted—by the elite. People with talents for marketing and for running a business are not generally the ones looking for work. Not everyone can or even should have such talents; in a real society there are many skill sets for doing “real work” or for teaching or for thinking or for creating which happen not to overlap with marketing and business. Indeed, if our society were focused on meeting people’s needs, rather than on consumerism and financialization, the latter skills might often be considered superfluous or even parasitic.

Instead, we have a myth of unlimited opportunity. As Thomas Shapiro put it,

A core element of the American credo is that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.[4]

In combination with a Protestant ethic that associates reward with God’s favor,[5] we can stigmatize the poor and the unemployed as “undeserving.”[6] Such people, bound for hell anyway, are owed nothing at all.

  1. [1]Paul Krugman, “The Big Shrug,” New York Times, June 9, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “Sympathy for the Luddites,” New York Times, June 13, 2013,
  2. [2]Susan Heavey, “Over 55 and jobless, Americans face tough hunt,” Reuters, May 15, 2012,; Annie Lowrey, “Long-Term Jobless: Still a Bleak Picture,” New York Times, June 7, 2013,; Stacey Patton, “Stale Ph.D.’s Need Not Apply,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 19, 2012,; Catherine Rampell, “In Hard Economy for All Ages, Older Isn’t Better … It’s Brutal,” New York Times, February 2, 2013,; Gary Rivlin, “The Long Shadow of Bad Credit in a Job Search,” New York Times, May 11, 2013,; Matthew Yglesias, “Statistical Discrimination Against the Long-Term Unemployed,” Slate, April 23, 2013,
  3. [3]See, for example, Beverly Ryle, Ground Of Your Own Choosing: Winning Strategies for Finding and Creating Work (Cape Cod, MA: Shank Painter, 2008).
  4. [4]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 3.
  5. [5]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  6. [6]Kristina Cooke, David Rohde, and Ryan McNeill, “The Undeserving Poor,” Atlantic, December 20, 2012,; Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94.

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