Aesthetic Labour : Grooming Young People to sell their bodies, their personalities

Looking Good, Feeling Right Ta to
Looking Good, Feeling Right
Ta to

Within the so-called youth sector today it seems to be taken for granted that workers prepare young people for employment. This focus on employability is seen as central, even though reality asks more than a few questions about this emphasis – chronic lack of jobs, low wages, zero-hour contracts. For many young people the world of work is and will be highly precarious.

Against this background Alan Mackie explores an increasing sense in which at least part of the job market has become a ‘personality market’. He begins with an anecdote.

I’ll start here with a story about someone I know. This friend went for a job as a bar-person – minimum wage, unstable hours but easy(ish) work so shouldn’t be too much hassle. They got a call asking them to go in for an interview; so far, so normal. But this wasn’t any old interview – they were made to perform a series of tasks in front of a panel of judges. X Factor for a bar-job. Parading up and down the bar, pouring pints and collecting glasses on the bar floor – auditioning for a pittance. They were even encouraged to have ‘zany’ chat whilst serving customers. They did not get the job and left the interview in a bit of a daze wondering – did that just happen?

This was a surprise to me, I’ll admit. But I recently stumbled across the notion of ‘aesthetic labour’ in my reading and I made the connection between my friends experience and this concept. With the rise in service sector employment in the UK, staff are increasingly becoming part of the ‘experience’ or ‘brand’ punted by hotels, bars, cafes, restaurants and retailers in an ever crowded market. In order to differentiate themselves, companies use staff as a form of ‘style’. Workers become ever more commodified as employers seek staff with the right ‘attitude’ and who look a certain way in order to represent their brand or product. The job market has become a ‘personality market’.

One definition that Alan provides is:

Aesthetic labor includes a worker’s deportment, style, accent, voice, and attractiveness. Employees at these stores must embody particular styles of standing, speaking, and walking. “Looking good” and “sounding right” are their jobs’ primary requirements. In virtually every case, the right aesthetic is middle class, conventionally gendered, and typically white. 

Whilst recognising that employers have always screened would-be employees in terms of their presentation, he proceeds to interrogate whether ‘Lookism’ is a growing form of discrimination experienced particularly by working class young people. In doing so he poses more than a few dilemmas for our relationships with young people. In conclusion he exposes the contradiction that firms desire young people to possess ‘soft’ skills and style, whilst wanting them to accept low paid, unstable working conditions. He ends:

If ‘lookism’ is excluding working-class young people from such a major part of our economy, then awareness of aesthetic labour and its centrality to the service industry requires pause for thought in the race to blame unemployment on individual young people.

Read in full at Aesthetic Labour – is ‘Lookism’ the new form of discrimination?



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