Accepted Paper:

Unemployment, active labor market policy, and the presentation of self in the Norwegian welfare state  


Kelly McKowen (Princeton University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the impact of policy on individual experiences of unemployment through examining the ways Norwegian active labor market policy limits the financial deprivation associated with joblessness while nevertheless constructing it as a deeper crisis of self and self-presentation.

Paper long abstract:

If the powerful crisis that closed the first decade of the 21st century showed the striking interdependence of European economies, it also revealed interesting disjunctures in the fates of the unemployed themselves. Behind the headline-grabbing figure of the "unemployment rate" unfolded trajectories of joblessness differing markedly in terms of financial deprivation, length, and patterns of social inclusion/exclusion. Tracking these trajectories, as well as identifying how they are shaped by different regimes of social and active labor market policy, signals a productive frontier for the emergent anthropology of unemployment. Drawing on my own fieldwork among unemployed benefit recipients in in Norway, I show that the the services and benefits administered by the Norwegian welfare state largely mitigate the deleterious material effects of unemployment while transforming the experience of joblessness into a series of encounters that encourage particular ways of orienting oneself to the labor market and the state. In particular, I argue that the combination of generous benefits and "job-seeker" courses using the rhetoric of motivation and personal values casts the loss of a job and the ejection from the labor market in terms of a breakdown of the self. The goal for the unemployed person thus becomes a rebuilding or reinvention of the self that is more attractive to the labor market and internalized sense of one's status as a working subject. I conclude with thoughts on productive future questions and avenues for an anthropology of unemployment that focuses on policy.

Panel P080
New trends in the anthropology of unemployment after the economic crisis of 2008-9 [Anthropology of Economy Network]