I read an interesting book recently called Down and Out in the New Economy, which studies the subject of how people in Silicon Valley find (or fail to find) work in today’s employment market. In so doing, it seeks to describe and understand the phenomenon of ‘personal branding’ in the context of the modern economy.
It starts by explaining that a purpose of advertising for many businesses is to pretend in some way that they – and by extension their products – are people, or at least have recognisable human traits, with reliable and desirable (marketable) properties.
Such advertising evolved because, in olden times, consumers bought locally and would know the producer/vendor (such as the owner of the village shop) personally, allowing trust in the quality of items sold from that establishment to develop over time through direct contact.
The spread of national chains and globalisation, however, meant that maintaining localised knowledge concerning who actually makes the products we consume became next to impossible, leading manufacturers to the conclusion that for trust in their goods to exist, they have to present a dependable, human face to the public.
The book’s central premise is that this process has become inverted and reflected: rather than companies seeking to represent themselves as brands with personalities, individuals when seeking work are now also being pressured to imagine themselves as business enterprises.
Like Coca Cola, the theory runs, employees are becoming more akin to personal businesses with their own brands on Linked, Facebook and other social media, as they struggle to be heard and stand out from the ‘noise’ created by a host of other online job-seekers from around the world. It’s the people with the most effective personal brands who attract the best job offers.
Employees, it’s argued, are moving away from the traditional view of thinking that they are metaphorically ‘renting their capacities’ as a bundle of skills to an employer for a set period of time, with the rest of the day their own.
Instead, as the division between 9-5 and personal time increasingly gets blurred, it’s argued that we’re changing to thinking of employment much more as a shorter-term, business-to-business relationship.
And in so doing, other things unavoidably change – how you present yourself as a desirable employee in a competitive market, your relationship with co-workers, thinking about your next contract and issues of company loyalty, and the relationship between your job and career, amongst many others.
Is this a true reflection of the direction in which things are moving or a mis-reading of today’s jobs market? And does the need for personal ‘business’ brands lead to a loss for us all as individuals, making us more accepting of a job market that risks preferring to treat employees as products – like cans of Coca Cola – rather than real people?
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