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Boom, Bust, Repeat: Commitments to Insecure Work in the Oil and Tech Industries


Work is increasingly characterized by flexibility, instability, and precarity. How do workers make sense of these changes, and how do they maintain commitments in such conditions? To explore these questions, this project examines the experiences of workers in two industries that epitomize these trends: oil and tech. Despite clear cultural differences between them, both of these industries have seen similar increases in contingent work arrangements in recent decades. Based on 212 interviews with workers and ethnographic observations of worksites, I observed workers in both these industries develop narratives of insecurity that allow them to see their work as a symbolic response to the perceived root cause of insecurity.

In the oil and gas industry, the common account of insecurity roots it in global geopolitics: dictatorial regimes in the Middle East disrupt the global market, causing drops in prices that are felt through lay-offs and reductions. The solution to this insecurity, according to these workers, is a strong domestic oil industry. The connection they describe between their work and this goal is symbolic rather than material. Work allows them to enact American patriotism, freedom, and individuality that they see as a moral response to the fluctuating global market. Although these workers understand that this response does not have a material impact, they extract from it a sense of symbolic agency that bolsters their commitments.

In the tech industry, the perceived root of insecurity is outdated, rigid, and overregulated business models that present obstacles to natural, inevitable, and positive technological advancement. The solution to insecurity under this narrative is to pursue disruption and innovation, to break from established models of business and organization. Daily work in the tech industry allows workers to enact these goals. Like in the oil industry, working toward these goals holds meaning beyond any tangible effect on job security and bolsters commitment.

The narratives of insecurity and symbolic agency in these industries parallel one another, and reflect a new form of psychological commitment to work. Although each is unique to its industry, in both, the insecurity experienced at work becomes the basis of a narrative that allows work to be seen as a moral response to insecurity, intensifying commitment to these contingent work arrangements. This pattern of commitment forms a new, neoliberal spirit of capitalism: one that reflects global narratives, is not dependent on particular firms, and is centered on individualized symbolic contributions.

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