When cool goes crappy: aesthetic labour and job quality

young good looking retail workers

It has become something of an orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic that job quality is polarising into good and bad jobs. A lot of attention in the US and UK is focused on making these bad jobs better. It is less well appreciated that good jobs can go bad and that bad jobs can get even worse. It might be that aesthetic labour contributes to the latter.

Much of the initial research into aesthetic labour has analysed retail jobs. Employment in retail constitutes what might be termed a ‘bad job’. Most jobs in retail are low skill and retail is one of the main low wage industries in the US and UK.

It seems that this bad job is getting worse however as retail companies seek to aestheticise their workforce, hiring employees who look good or sound right. Two developments have emerged as a consequence of this aestheticisation strategy by employers.

First, it is clear that some workers are being excluded from these jobs on the basis of their looks and so denied access to a key job growth sector and a job that can be an important first step in the labour market. Whilst all retail jobs now involve some level of worker aestheticisation, its intensity can vary depending upon the market niche and marketing strategy of companies. It is the upmarket, style-driven niche in which employers most explicitly attempt to match labour and product markets, with only those applicants who have the right habitus – more specifically ‘middle classness’ – that tend to be employed.

Second, as a consequence, middle class youth displace working class youth from these retail jobs. Many are students still living at home, with financial support from their parents. These middle class youth are attracted to what are, formally, working class jobs by the allure of working for ‘cool’ brands, the opportunity to model stock and the availability of significant product discounts that enable them to wear these cool companies’ product. It is a twist on consumer fetishism, according to Christine Williams and Catherine Connell, as companies’ consumers become its workers, attracted by the glamour and status associated by representing a cool brand.

Crucially, these workers regard themselves as consumers not producers; they are not driven by their labour interests. They have little interest in improving what, despite the ascription of being cool, are still objectively bad jobs. Importantly, often still living at home with wealthy parents, these workers use their wages to buy the employers’ products because they do not need their wages to survive.

Nevertheless, despite the glamour, besides being low skilled and low paid, these jobs also tend to be very routine, highly monitored and often staffed through just-in-time scheduling. The result is highly variable working hours and income instability. In franchised stores there are also few promotion  opportunities.

This reality makes for an unpleasant job and the consumerist fantasies quickly fade. However rather than voice their demands for better jobs these workers quit.  One of Williams and Connell’s interviewees claimed that only one in four new starts lasted in the job beyond their first day. Lacking interest in the usual demands of labour – decent working conditions, pay, and prospects – these workers walk out the door rather than agitate for change. They do not they push for change in company practice and policy that might create better pay and career opportunities. This turnover is not a problem for employers: given the allure of cool, new workers are easily hired.

The lack of collective interest undermines the potential for collective action that might help make these bad jobs better. Indeed, without that action, aesthetic labour degrades job quality: labour market exclusion is compounded, limited progression opportunities and low pay continue for those workers who make it into work, and the likelihood of collective voice becomes more distant. However, with easy entry and exit for these workers, the key question is: does it matter that these jobs are bad and in danger of getting worse? It might be that aesthetic labour results in a new McJob – perceived to be lousy but useful for a short period and, ultimately, escapable.

1 comment
  1. In research with Kyla Walters, we find that workers in these jobs are rarely fired, but they are not scheduled for hours, basically cooling them out, until they have to find another job, effectively quitting. The workers we have interviewed are not carefree about “escaping,” but bitter about the lack of hours, pay, and decent working conditions. Employers may not mind losing workers, given a steady supply of new ones, but workers and frontline managers express a great deal of concern about these practices, suggesting that organizing these workers is possible.

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