In the summer of 2009, the United States unemployment rate reached 9.4 percent, its highest level in more than two decades. New filings for unemployment continued to rise, while the number of long-term unemployed (jobless for twenty-seven weeks or more) hit 4.4 million. In total, more than 14.5 million Americans were out of work, with more than four job seekers for every open position.1 Amid a deepening global economic crisis, ongoing national recession, and imploding housing, stock, and labor markets, the situation seemed unlikely to improve any time soon. A director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research commented, “It’s really just about as bad as can be imagined. … There’s just no way we’re anywhere near a bottom. We’ll be really lucky if we stop losing jobs by the end of the year.”2
Like most Americans, I read reports of the deepening employment crisis with growing unease; I also read them with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. As disturbing as this situation was, it was also eerily familiar; at that very moment I was completing a book—this book—on another moment, (p.viii) one not that long ago, during which U.S. workers were being laid off by the tens of thousands, flooding into a labor market already decimated by recession, national crisis, and the implosion of a different (although not that different) kind of bubble.
Since 2001, I had been researching the experiences of white-collar high-technology workers in Dallas, Texas, who were laid off during the volatile first years of the twenty-first century. I met with job seekers in coffee shops, restaurants, bars, churches, libraries, civic centers, conference rooms, and their homes, all with the goal of understanding how this new generation of workers felt and thought about their layoffs, the process of looking for work, and the experience of what became, for most, unexpectedly prolonged unemployment.
I did not initially set out to study unemployment. As a cultural anthropologist, I have always been interested in how people make sense of the world and their place in it. Since my undergraduate years, I have been drawn not to exploring the worldviews of exotic natives in far-off lands (to borrow a tired and problematic trope), but to trying to identify and understand the cultural beliefs and behaviors of those middle-class Americans whose way of life is often dismissed by academics as too banal, obvious, or distasteful to merit extensive study. And so my natives have always been, to a great extent, people like me: middle-class Americans with college educations, men and women, often white, whose beliefs and lifestyles are commonly referred to as the stuff of “mainstream” American life.
It was only after college that I began to focus on issues of work and the meaning it holds for those who perform it. My first job upon graduating was with a nonprofit research and consulting organization that works to advance women in business. I enjoyed the job and supported the organization’s mission, but was frustrated by how little the statistical research we specialized in (such as counting the current number of women CEOs and tracking the percentages of women of color employed in executive positions) actually told me about what work meant in the lives of the men and women we surveyed, and how issues like gender, race, and class shaped the nature of contemporary white-collar employment. On returning to graduate school, I sought to answer those sorts of questions and ultimately specialized in the anthropology of work and the middle class, and U.S. cultural and business history.
(p.ix) When I began this project in 2001, the country was reeling at the sudden and generally unexpected failure of myriad dot-com start-up companies whose flat organizational structures and self-consciously casual corporate cultures had only recently been touted as the future of the U.S. workplace. My original plan was therefore to study those dot-com companies that survived the crash of 2000, where workday realities, I suspected, would represent a more complicated picture of what, exactly, the “New Economy” workplace was ultimately going to look like for U.S. workers.
I chose Dallas as my field site in part because previous studies of high-tech workplaces and workers had focused almost exclusively on California’s Silicon Valley.3 Dallas’s large and varied high-tech industries and work-force—concentrated primarily in computing and telecommunications—scarcely rated a mention in scholarship on high-tech hubs; those who had looked southward tended to rush past Dallas on the way to its southern neighbor Austin, which had a smaller but decidedly sexier dot-com–based tech industry. By producing a historically situated ethnographic study of the Dallas tech workforce, I hoped to offer a comparative perspective to existing research on Silicon Valley while focusing attention on this dynamic but under-studied region.4
To that end, I began my fieldwork in September 2001 by attending the meetings of various high-tech organizations and professional associations in and around Dallas, looking for contacts in whose companies I might conduct fieldwork. Events ranged from early morning lectures by industry leaders, to mid-day seminars and panel discussions, to late-night happy hours for informal networking among self-proclaimed “geeks.” Most events found me, Styrofoam coffee cup in hand, awkwardly attempting to insert myself into an ongoing conversation or to forge a new one with a fellow solo attendee. Like unpopular kids at a high school dance, most new attendees (ethnographers included) welcomed any sort of contact during those first awkward minutes of networking. In such a setting, once the introductions are out of the way, one tends to make what conversation one can with one’s current partner. Although these forums were ostensibly for business people to make contacts, broker deals, and trade industry gossip, many of the people I met were actually unemployed, having been recently laid off from companies in the ailing telecommunications, computing, and Internet industries. At each event, I inevitably crossed paths with at (p.x) least one person who wanted me to help them network into a company, while I was hoping for the same sort of assistance from them.
I therefore did a lot of talking, or listening, about layoffs—both why they were happening and how it felt when they happened to you. I soon found myself gravitating more toward unemployed attendees than employed ones, as I became convinced that the more fascinating and relevant story about high-tech work at the turn of the twenty-first century was taking place outside corporations rather than within them. My research focus shifted accordingly, and I began what would become three years of field-work (the details of which I outline in the introduction) on unemployment and job seeking in the Dallas high-tech industry.
As anthropologists have long acknowledged, the work of ethnography might begin in the field, but it hardly ends there; most of us begin to make real sense of our findings only as we attempt to shape them into publishable scholarly form.5 As we go about doing so, our informants continue to live their lives, sometimes in ways that complicate and even invalidate the narratives we try to craft around them.6 When I concluded my fieldwork in 2004, for instance, the U.S. economy was improving; many of my informants had found reemployment, and those who had not were generally optimistic about their prospects. And yet their stories do not end in 2004, and therefore neither could mine.
I wrote much of this book between 2003 and 2005, and then I set the project aside for a few years while I began a new teaching position. When I returned to the manuscript in 2008, the economic sands were shifting once again, prompting inevitable questions about how the new downturn might complicate or confirm my earlier conclusions. My central goal is to accurately document the experiences of a particular group of job seekers at a particular moment in time, yet the benefits hindsight can offer are too great to ignore. In this book I therefore seek a balance between reconstructing the world of high-tech job seeking as it was during my initial fieldwork (2001–2004) and critically examining that period—and my own and my informants’ perceptions thereof—in light of more recent events. (Much of the statistical data I present, for instance, is specific to the early 2000s in order to provide an accurate picture of the economy and job market interviewees faced at the time they lost their jobs and set about finding new ones. When possible, however, I offer updated figures alongside them for informational and comparative purposes.)
(p.xi) To that end, in the fall of 2009 I conducted follow-up interviews with a small number of primary informants to see how their lives and careers had progressed over the five years since I last interviewed them. Those updates, which are presented in an extended epilogue, offer not only a fuller picture of how individual job seekers have fared since losing their jobs nearly a decade ago but also new lenses through which to view the data presented in the main chapters. They also offer revealing and unsettling evidence as to what lies ahead for the millions of Americans who, as I write this preface, are just beginning their own journeys through the world of job loss, job seeking, and prolonged unemployment. (p.xii)
(4.) Dallas has been curiously overlooked by humanities and social science scholars in general, unless one counts cultural studies texts on the Dallas of J. R. Ewing fame. Anthropologist Robert V. Kemper has called Dallas “perhaps the most under-studied major city in the country” (Ragland 2002), in part because research on Texas has tended to focus on the border communities over 300 miles to the city’s south (e.g., Foley 1990; Hagan 1994; Limón 1991; Madsen 1964). Historical studies of the city are equally rare. When I asked a prominent historian of Texas about research on Dallas, he could think of only two significant books to suggest, one published in 1940, the other in 1982, although Michael Phillips’s 2006 White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001 marks an important recent addition to the list.