Work is normally discussed in financial terms: Does a job provide enough money to make ends meet? To plan for a secure retirement? What happens to those who face prolonged periods without a paycheck?

But work—and unemployment—is also an emotional experience, shaping how people think of themselves and how they relate to those closest to them. This terrain is the focus of sociologist Allison Pugh's new book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity.

I recently spoke with Pugh about what this means for American workers, society, and public policy. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Rebecca J. Rosen: A central premise of your research is that work is about more than money—it's also about identity and relationships, particularly within a family. How does work shape us beyond our bank accounts?

Allison Pugh: Work is a wellspring of identity in the United States. There's been a lot of good research showing that Americans use the notion of hard work to separate themselves from others. It's how rich people distinguish themselves from the middle class, how the middle class distinguishes itself from the working class, and how men distinguish themselves from women, particularly care-giving women. It's like each of these different social groups is looking at others and saying, "Yes, but we work really hard."

There's this great book about low-income people in northern California by Jennifer Sherman, who talks about the way low-income people distinguish themselves from people who are receiving state aid. They say, "Well, we work really hard." The work ethic, and all the different ways in which people define that, is a really powerful way in which people define themselves as honorable in our society.

What that does is it makes involuntary job loss all the more painful. Because it's not just about interruptions to your income. It's not just about, "Oooh, wow, we had plans to save for retirement, or to buy a boat, or to put our kids into school." Yes, it's impeding those dreams, but it's also chipping away at how we think of ourselves—as honorable people, as people who can stand up as full citizens in our social world and say, "I belong here. I'm a contributing member. I work hard."


Rosen: What does this mean for people who lose their jobs? How does job loss affect people psychologically and how do they react?

Pugh: People varied in how they responded to job loss and to the identity threat that it poses. The most common response was actually self-blame. A lot of them are looking to themselves to explain how this could have happened, saying "Oh, I never should've taken that job in the first place," or, "Oh, I guess I shouldn't have complained about that assignment." They do a lot of retrospective blaming of themselves. This has actually been found in many different studies. It's a very robust finding. People blame themselves.

It was shocking to me, really, because I went out looking for anger; I expected anger. Someone gets laid off, one would expect people to get angry, to say, "Hey! That's not fair!" I didn't find that to nearly the extent that I expected. And instead I heard a lot more self-blame.

Rosen: Why is that? Was there any merit to those feelings?

Pugh: I actually think that's a very common reaction to hearing about the self-blame. I think maybe it's the way the rest of us comfort ourselves, thinking about their disrupted work. You know, "Oh, maybe there is merit; maybe they did complain too much about their assignments." We want to believe that on some level because we have such a strong cultural ideology in favor of hard work and the work ethic and the meritocracy.

There was a group of people who were angry, and they are the ones who showed me what was missing in the other people. The people who were angry were those who were actually employed in stable work—work that was supposed to be stable. So everyone else—most everyone else—has really accepted insecurity as the way it is now, perhaps even more than it actually is.

There's been a debate for decades about the extensiveness of job insecurity with a strong set of scholars arguing strenuously that actually it's not clear that there has been an increase in job insecurity. That's changed, so now there is a social-science consensus that there is more job insecurity and that some of those trends were hidden by women's increased job attachment, so you couldn't really see it. It's hard to tease apart, but, finally, social scientists are coming up around to what regular people have known for some time, that yes there's increased job insecurity. Nonetheless, it's not some kind of tsunami. It's not every job in every location. And what I found is a widespread capitulation to insecurity, so that people think it's everywhere.

So they've kind of given up. They don't talk like they expect hardly anything from their employers. I have people say, "Well, I guess they owe you a paycheck and some amount of respect." That's it, you know.

But the people who had high expectations and then found that their expectations were in some way betrayed, those people were angry. So, oddly, it was the stably employed people who were laid off for some reason or just were disappointed in some way—maybe they didn't get as high a raise as they expected or a bonus—the people who had expectations: They were angry.

But the people employed in"regular work"—not, say, work that's supposed to be a "forever career" (the firefighter, the public school teacher, that kind of work)—but everyone else that I was interviewing, they were like, "Oh yeah, insecurity, that's just the way it is now." So they were doing this elaborate emotional work on themselves to get themselves feeling the right way. And the right way was blaming themselves.

Rosen: It seems to me that there are really enormous implications for a society that accepts that employers owe their workers nothing more than a paycheck. I think you would see it in a lackluster labor movement, and perhaps lackluster social policy as well. Can you talk about the ways this attitude contributes to the dynamic?

Pugh: I actually think there's probably a feedback loop here. But, yes. By kind of casting job insecurity as inevitable, they cut themselves off at the knees. They chip away at the capacity to organize against that.

And actually, you find that, I think, in the dominant conversation today. There's still a left out there, or a progressive movement out there, but they're looking at different things. They're not complaining about job insecurity. Instead, for example, you'll find much more conversation nowadays talking about schedule unpredictability, which I think is very important, and about wage stagnation. Those are the two primary ways in which the public conversation on the side of workers is going.

But it's like they've given up on this other huge thing, which is: Do employers owe any kind of loyalty to their employees? That's not a conversation that we have anymore. I see it in a crippled union, or organized-workers, movement. And I see it in this kind of truncated, or kind of oddly shaped public conversation in which some topics seem not to be available for discussion.

Rosen: One of the things I see you getting at in your book is that the effects of the instability people experience at work don't just stop at their finances, but can also affect their family lives. What are the consequences of insecurity outside of work?

Pugh: This part was very crucial to this project. It was very foundational to this project. Because another thing that I feel like we're not talking about is the wider implications of job insecurity. When an employer decides to lay off people, we act—the business press, the public conversation—we act like that is a decision that carries implications for the worker only at work.

We know a lot about how those decisions affect workers at work. They lower productivity, they lower job morale, that kind of thing. But we don't have a lot of information about what happens outside of work, so I really wanted to investigate that.

Essentially I found that that varied dramatically by your relative advantage. People at the top of the heap, the more affluent people, had the capacity to protect their home lives from the churn that they were experiencing in their work lives to a much greater degree than the people without that advantage.

Lower-income people, they responded differently. The way insecurity affected their home lives is it made commitment a question. And it made it a question they had to answer in some way. So it made it kind of fraught. They either, as I found, ran away from commitment, toward building this whole notion of independence and cutting off or shrinking the circle of people to whom they owed anything, even care or commitment. Or, on the other hand, they would run to it and again assume great burdens of other people's needs in this way that suggested they were defining it as a matter of duty. And if they didn't uphold their duty, they would be abandoning—very stark and ultimately sort of sacrificial language around commitment and what they owed other people. So it was this oddly polarizing affect, where you'd see people doing extremes of coping responses.

Rosen: What role does gender play in the different responses you saw?

Pugh: One of the most poignant findings or experiences that I had in doing this research was encountering the less-advantaged men and their experience of job insecurity and what it did to them and what it did to their home lives because I found myself watching and understanding their deep anger.

Paradoxically, they had been abandoned at work, but, as I said, they were not feeling any of that anger at work. And yet, they really aimed their anger at home and at the women that they perceived had failed them and failed their duty. So they were looking for, you could almost say, the ways in which duty pertained at home and was being betrayed at home. And they were not looking at work in that way at all.That meant they were deeply angry, many of them were bitter, frustrated, talked about being betrayed. But there was also this overlay of sorrow and their incapacity to do what they thought they were responsible for, which is essentially providing. There was just a lot of very powerful emotion swirling around those interviews.

I did find a couple of men who were trying to redefine masculinity to include more obligations and tasks outside of providing and take on bigger roles at home and in care-giving. I found them very inspiring, not just because, yes, we want masculinity to include a wider array of behaviors, and that's great for everybody. Not just on a political front, but also because I could hear it working for them. They were still using the language of duty, which seemed to be very crucial for the men who I was speaking to. They want duty to be the thing that they're responding to. It's almost as if, for many of the men, masculinity meant duty. And so, if they were able to expand their duties to something that they could actually do, it was very rewarding.

So I could see that it was great for gender politics, but it was also very helpful for those men personally, in a way that helped them not be so fundamentally angry. It was really interesting and quite poignant actually. I ended up feeling a lot of empathy with them.

With regard to women, the women were the primary people who were both running away from and running to commitment. They were both these independent people and, also, a group that I ended up considering almost commitment heroes and thinking about them in that way. And, again, I could see, particularly for the independent souls, I could see why they were doing it. They perceived themselves almost surrounded by drains on their resources—social forces that they couldn't count on. They can't count on the low-wage men who were supposed to be their mates (and those low-wage men are of course subject to the same insecure work that they are); they couldn't count on the market work because that was insecure; they couldn't count on the state because it had really withdrawn some of its responsibilities for supporting their caregiving work. So there was this retreat on all sides of possible support for them.

It's not a surprise that under those circumstances, you'd see some people say, "Well, with no support at any corner, then I'm going to withdraw from an expansive view of my obligation. I'm going to define that a smaller way. I'll owe it to my child, maybe my mother, but no one else."

These go-it-alone women, I found them very understandable, given all the circumstances that surrounded them. The way they talked had a kind of grim triumph, or defiance. They didn't really invite empathy in some way, but I felt for the triple-bind that they were in.