The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2016)

The Disruptables

Benjamin H. Snyder

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 1)

Your next job will only last for three years,” says Bill Goldman, a former headhunter for a Fortune 500 company, to an audience of job seekers in a church in Richmond, Virginia.

The day is gone when you can give your career to your employer. He doesn’t want it and he won’t take it. So you need to take control of your career and do it yourself. You can either bumble through life from job to job, or you can make it so that jobs come to you rather than you having to go out and seek jobs.

Goldman’s counsel that we become more personally responsible for our careers is part of a larger discourse about how people should conduct themselves in today’s “flexible” economy. His directive echoes widespread calls for workers to become disruptable—that is, more entrepreneurial, risk ready, resilient, and open to change in order to thrive in workplaces that are more short-term oriented, unpredictable, and unstandardized. His advice, then, is about time—how people should expect their lives to unfold over time through a sequence of employment experiences—and about being—what kind of a person it is good to become in order to thrive in this temporal structure.

Time is political, particularly when it comes to work. We argue over labor policies and management practices that organize workers’ hours, days, weeks, months, and years, and draw on moralized conceptions of the human person—how people ought to be—in order to legitimate these arguments. Advocates of “disruptability” are engaging in a politics of work time that has begun to challenge the old nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics. Previous labor reforms were based on a rigid, standardized, and rationalized set of institutional temporalities—the eight-hour day, the forty-hour week, and the bounded career—that oriented workers’ lives to a long-term time horizon. These arrangements provided workers with a common system of standardized temporal patterns that gave them some predictability about the future. But they were also deeply problematic for workers in ways that sustained intense debate and activism.

The new politics of disruption, which focuses more on unstandardized work arrangements and do-it-yourself entrepreneurialism, is changing the ground on which this long-standing debate between workers and employers occurs. How do workers today deal with the mandate to make themselves disruptable? What conceptions of the good life must they cultivate? Even the word disruptable is ambiguous. A disruptable industry is fixated on established ways of doing things and therefore has fantastic potential for innovation. What, then, is a disruptable person? Is it someone who is likely to be victimized by disruption because of his or her commitment to old ways? Or is it someone who has chameleon-like qualities that allow that person to thrive amid constant change? Or is it, most likely, someone who is a bit of both?

A Culture of Disruption

The eight-hour day and the forty-hour week were the result of generations of global unionized labor activism between the late 1700s and 1930s, which, in the United States, culminated in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The FLSA made the forty-hour week and overtime pay federal law for dozens of common industries, giving labor a standardized deal that applied across organizations. But labor’s move to embrace the fixed work schedule in the nineteenth century ended up being a Faustian bargain. As much as it gave them a clear language with which to negotiate—hourly wages, piece rates, and so on—it also ceded control over the rhythms of the labor process to a new breed of twentieth-century managers such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, who desired “scientific management.” Taylorism separated planning tasks from execution tasks, and organized the latter with such temporal precision that workers were often just on the edge of exhaustion. Through heightened surveillance and planning, managers extracted the most productivity from each second of a shift. While the steady rhythms of regular hourly shifts and wages made for a more predictable working life, they created a workplace that was simultaneously monotonous and intense. Wage laborers came to be ruled by the clock.1

Taylorized workplaces, however, did not produce employees who would stick with a company long-term and develop into highly skilled workers.2 Figures like psychologist Elton Mayo began to develop the burgeoning science of management psychology, which designed new temporal structures that would make workers want to work hard, even if work was still drudgery, and stay with a company long enough to refine their skills.3 The most important of these innovations was the “bounded career.”

Initially developed in manufacturing firms by some of Taylor’s direct disciples, the bounded career encouraged employees to understand their work in terms of an entire life trajectory within a single organization. Managers hoped this idea would create a more predictable and internally driven person who would sacrifice himself (usually only himself) to hard work in the present in order to reap future rewards in the form of status, insurance, pensions, and a secure retirement.4 Sweat for security—that was the deal.

We often forget just how dissatisfying this deal was in the eyes of many observers. The notion that routine, standardization, and security are goods in themselves sparked a widespread debate about the problem of conformity in America. Books such as Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) pegged American organizational culture as having created a generation of torpid “yes-men” who were undermining national creativity and innovation.5

The twentieth-century politics of work time was a struggle between labor and capital that never produced a truly satisfactory model for either side. Wins for labor, such as limitations on hours, were met with management adaptations that used those victories against workers. Wins for capital, such as the enshrinement of loyalty through bounded careers, were met with public outcries against conformity that delegitimized the big bureaucratic firm. Always clear, however, were the temporal terms of the debate: the hour, the shift, the workweek, and the career.

The stodgy culture of mid-twentieth-century corporations is partly what pushed some of America’s most innovative professionals to move to rural California, of all places, where they developed a new kind of organizational structure—the “start-up” model—that has now become an aspirational norm in many companies.6 Instead of a culture of orderliness, planning, and predictable hierarchy, this paradigm cultivates a culture of “disruption.”7

The Neo-Taylorist Worker

A number of epochal processes, such as globalization, the mass entry of women into the labor force, the post-1970s economic decline, deregulation, de-unionization, and the turn to a shareholder value model of corporate governance, have begun to dismantle the temporal structure in which Americans have been debating work. New practices have arisen. Short-term, independent, and temporary contracting arrangements are beginning to replace the standardized, secure, long-term contract. This has placed more emphasis, especially among white-collar workers, on becoming a nimble “entrepreneur” rather than a loyal “company man.”8

After decades of deregulation and de-unionization in the wage-labor sector, the standard nine-to-five shift and forty-hour week, which activists fought so hard to achieve, are being challenged by irregular scheduling. Employers rapidly adjust workers’ hours up or down with little advanced warning based on predictive algorithms of consumer demand.9 The Taylorism of the early twentieth century, which gave workers one standardized set of instructions for carrying out their tasks, is being revamped by twenty-first-century neo-Taylorism, which employs digital surveillance technologies to track workers’ movements in real time, incessantly overhaul labor processes, and beep at workers when they are falling behind.10 All of these techniques are meant to produce a worker who, on any given day, can deliver a precise and context-specific amount of labor power according to employers’ needs and then be easily tossed aside.

On a larger scale, these arrangements add up to a downward shift of risk from employers to workers. Workers are expected to manage risks that were once happily borne by employers in the form of regular and secure employment, such as the problem of maintaining steady wages and appropriate levels of output during market downturns. But workers must typically manage these new risks without collective representation and a strong welfare system.

This is having deeply troubling consequences for workers’ health, psychology, and relationships. Many must coordinate multiple part-time jobs that have unpredictable schedules, a situation that often results in work-family conflict and an uneven flow of income.11 Job instability increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, and mental health problems.12 Neo-Taylorist labor systems have intensified work, even in many white-collar settings, leading to more complaints about overwork and stress.13 Independent contracting, while promising more control over work, in reality often results in a worker being at the beck and call of demanding clients and experiencing an inability to switch off.14 Irregularity is great for some, but for most workers it means chaos.

Disruption is also a powerful cultural narrative. It entails an almost paranoid aversion to the missed opportunity and champions the obsessive pursuit of good timing. Those who stick to a plan based on knowledge from the past, the thinking goes, will be blindsided by innovations from nimbler and more creative competitors. Rather than wait for that inevitable crisis, one should proactively destroy what is fixed and constantly rebuild. Never get comfortable, because in comfort lies blindness to the next opportunity. Disruption culture has filtered out of the boardrooms of the economic elite into management texts, self-help literature, and career development advice meant for the average worker.15

All of this amounts to a regime that is different from the twentieth-century politics of time. Rather than pre-planned collective temporal institutions such as the hour, the shift, and the career, workers are focused on their own unique micro-temporalities, which they must often build, manage, and maintain by themselves in order to staff the kinds of fickle, short-term ventures in which companies wish to engage. If companies are going to be producers of disruption in the market, they need workers who are disruptable.

Learning to Love Disruption

Career Transition Ministries (CTM) is a volunteer organization run by a large Catholic parish in Richmond, Virginia, which I observed at the height of the Great Recession in 2011 as part of a larger study on the changing nature of work. It is one of thousands of charitable organizations set up to help unemployed workers navigate the new economy. CTM is the work of a parishioner who has leveraged his connections as an executive at a global insurance conglomerate to help jobless professionals find work. CTM does many things, from redesigning résumés to conducting mock interviews, but its main function is ideological: It teaches the job seeker to become disruptable.

CTM’s principal feature is a series of weekly public talks by experts in the burgeoning change management industry. These speakers attempt to arm job seekers with an emotionally evocative image of the future that is meant to replace the career model with which participants typically arrive. Kathy Kerr, for example, is an executive coach at a large commercial bank and a popular speaker at CTM. Having been laid off twice, moved her family across the country twice, and worked for three years as an unpaid intern in the human resources department of a local university to get to her present position, Kerr knows what her audience is going through. “I’ve been in your shoes,” she tells a group of about fifty CTM participants. “I know how hard it is to be out of work.” On the positive side, she realizes now that “I didn’t really like those first two jobs anyway. I wasn’t happy.” Even though she had to struggle as an unpaid intern, her perseverance has paid off. She is now able to “do what I always wanted to do.” With this story, Kerr draws a portrait of the disrupted life for today’s professionals—precarious and unpredictable employment that puts the onus on the individual to carve out her unique path.

While it is true that your employer will no longer watch over your career, CTM speakers argued that this is a sign of liberation rather than loss. Rather than the “death” of a career, one can see it as no longer having to “give your career away” (in the words of Bill Goldman) to someone who will not treasure it the way you do. In an echo of mid-twentieth-century critiques by Wilson and Whyte, the bounded career is thus likened to a prison. It makes people give up the one thing they should have as free individuals: personal responsibility. Speeches like these invite participants to embrace a new image of their long-term life trajectory as a path of never-ending job seeking. They are to become professional job seekers.

In the culture of disruption, positive emotions are the only things that truly propel us forward—not because they allow us to better enjoy life, but because they are strategic. The emphasis on positive psychology provides an important link between the public structure of unpredictable, unstandardized, and short-term work trajectories and the private world of workers’ hopes, desires, and motivations. Portions of several CTM meetings were dedicated to techniques for generating a reserve of positive energy that could be drawn upon at strategic moments. For example, during a talk by Jolene Jenkins, a life coach and therapist, participants were asked to place the tip of a plastic straw between their front teeth and hold their mouths in that position while she gave a short talk on the neuroscience of positive thinking. After a few minutes, we were asked to remove our straws.

“How do you feel?” Jenkins asked. “Can you feel your smile? It’s still there, isn’t it? You might even feel a little happier. That’s because the act of smiling has made your brain think you’re happy. Your brain is saying, ‘If I’m smiling, I must be happy.’” Jenkins explained that numerous “scientific studies” have shown that putting one’s body into states associated with positive moods can actually create those feelings. She then distributed a handout titled “Confidence Boosters,” which included twenty-eight techniques for generating a positive mood that will improve one’s job search. “Dress up every day—you never know who you will run into—people you meet/know need to see your ‘success persona.’” “Write emails with only positive words—eliminate ‘no,’ ‘can’t,’ ‘won’t,’ ‘couldn’t,’ ‘not,’ etc.”

In concluding her talk, Kathy Kerr encouraged job seekers to put most of their energy into networking because “people hire people they know and like.” However, networking was also discussed as a kind of good in itself, as an activity befitting the positive, outgoing, forward-looking professional job seeker. The hallmark of a good networker is one who can give a good “elevator speech”—a ten-to-thirty-second “sales pitch” for oneself to have at the ready when one encounters a networking partner. A good elevator speech, participants were told, “conveys energy,” “leaves a lasting impression,” and, above all, “sells yourself.”

The audience was then asked to break into small groups to present their elevator speeches and rate each other on a one-to-ten scale. Sitting across from me at a table with six other participants, Evelyn began her speech so quietly that it was difficult to hear her over the din of the room. After the others politely asked her to speak up, she nervously said, “I used to be a data analyst for the FAA and I’m looking for jobs as a data analyst.” Then she hesitated, saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t really do this.” The group immediately jumped in to support her. One group member gave some advice. “I noticed you started by saying, ‘I used to be’ and not ‘I am’ an analyst. You should say ‘I am an analyst’ because the other way is a bit too rearview mirror.” Others agreed and asked her to try again. Her voice now slightly trembling, Evelyn peeped, “I am an analyst.” Becoming more upset, she started to tear up, much to the group’s horror. Others began to console her, one advising her to “write it down and rehearse it in the mirror until you can give it confidently and without thinking about it.”

The Dignity of Disruption

The job seekers I met were being asked to cultivate a particular kind of personhood that is willing to embrace risk, and perhaps even be excited about it. They were encouraged to meet disruptions in their working lives head-on and turn them into opportunities for innovation. I was taken aback by just how accepting of this idea many of them were, and at first interpreted it as a kind of coping mechanism. Over time, however, I began to see that embracing disruptable personhood is something more. It also provides access to new and seductive understandings of the self.

The first time I talked to Linda, a sixty-year-old laid-off administrative assistant, she walked me through the story of her working life, which had involved nearly half a dozen positions and companies over forty years. I interviewed her again a year later and learned that she had been hired by another corporation, this time a midsize commercial bank, and once again let go after less than a year. The company had hired a new CEO and decided to dissolve the department Linda was working in by moving her tasks online. Linda narrated her story of job loss with the kind of calm detachment of someone for whom work crises are a normal state of affairs. She said she was “ecstatic” after first landing the job. It was a “perfect fit” and paid just $2,000 per year less than her previous position. But the excitement wore off quickly. She described an unsettling and all-pervading anxiety: It was “always in the back of my mind that this position may be abolished, and I wondered how I would handle that. I found that I was treading very lightly. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Linda’s worries were confirmed when her managers warned that they planned to abolish her position in roughly three months. They would not let her tell her colleagues of the plan, however. Nor did they give her an exact date of termination. During those three months, she was tasked with secretly putting herself out of a job by establishing new online systems that could automate her work. She was still working hard, but now with full knowledge that every hour spent on work was an hour closer to unemployment. “I’d much rather have the immediate layoff or firing or termination or whatever you want to call it,” Linda said, “because it’s done, it’s over with, and maybe I would have blamed the company more then. But how could I blame the company when they told me for three months what they were doing?” Through a kind of planned unpredictable impermanence, the company passed the emotional risk of worrying about commitment onto Linda’s shoulders.

Despite being saddled with worries about the proper level of commitment, Linda was determined to forgive, accept, and remain positive—a determination that appears to be a consistent finding in research on American job seekers.16 She had, for example, covered her bedroom walls with positive sayings, such as “Dare to try” and “If you risk nothing, you risk everything.” On this level, Linda’s embrace of disruption was a way to cope with her dire circumstances. She had cultivated an emotional life that was defiantly disruption-proof—an almost aggressive positivity that provided inner stability in the face of a constantly changing work identity.

On another level, embracing disruption opened up new possibilities for the self, which Linda felt would have been impossible to achieve under the old careerist mentality of long-term dedication to a single organization:

The number of people I’ve seen now who were in positions that they were not happy in, but that they didn’t know they were not happy in, is staggering. They lose their job…and then figure out that they shouldn’t have been doing that job for thirty years anyway. And it’s those people that are the positive ones.

Disruption allowed her to honor the core self—the “real me”—without getting attached to the outer working self—an assemblage of skill sets, titles, and roles. In this sense, disruption was a liberation from the meaningless security that came with becoming an Organization (Wo)man. Toward the end of our interview, Linda finally confided that even though her most recent job was “probably the best gig I’ve ever had,” she had been getting restless. “I was ready to move on, honestly…. Because I was getting bored with what I was doing. So, instead of moving on, I moved out. So, now I can start all over again.” There can be dignity, even a certain thrill, in becoming disruptable.

Fragmented and Unsustainable

The turn to flexibility in America has transformed the grounds of the debate between workers and employers by fragmenting the shared social basis of time. But public discourse—the terms of the debate—has not yet caught up with this fragmentation, and remains remarkably inarticulate about urgent problems. It is as if everyone is isolated in her own unique, personalized temporality—my schedule, my contract, my latest gig, my brand, my network—and cannot figure out which collective temporal structures to fight for or against. As a result, we are not really debating at all.

Public discourse about work time is particularly inarticulate about the fact that there are clear winners and losers in the politics of disruption. Take the word flexibility, for example, perhaps the most frequently discussed quality of disrupted industries, jobs, and people. As New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor notes, flexibility has become “an alluring word for white-collar workers, who may desire, say, working from home one day a week.”17 Scholars, policymakers, and more enlightened employers have developed an entire labor platform surrounding “flexible scheduling” that promotes “balance” within today’s time-hungry professions. But, as Kantor explains, the very same word—flexibility—“can have a darker meaning for many low-income workers as a euphemism for unstable hours and paychecks.” Kantor vividly documents the case of a Starbucks employee who struggles to build a stable life when her hours are constantly being changed due to elaborate scheduling software. Among low-wage shift workers, flexible scheduling often contributes to an unbalanced life.

This kind of inarticulacy has allowed low-wage employers to pretend that glaring differences in the meanings of flexibility do not exist. Take this job advertisement on the website for the retailer Macys. Headlined “Job: Retail Sales, *Flexible Scheduling Option!,* Part-Time,” the ad begins, “This position uses a scheduling plan that allows an associate to participate in the creation of his/her work schedule….” The position “allows the maximum amount of scheduling flexibility.” Toward the end of the ad, however, the picture looks very different. In a section titled “Qualifications,” it lists “ability to work a flexible schedule, including mornings, evenings, and weekends, and busy events…based on department and store/company needs.” Flexibility now has exactly the opposite meaning. When presented with the opportunity to participate in creating a “flexible” workplace, then, what is a worker to think? Does flexibility mean personal customization of time, or does it mean that when the company says “Jump,” the employee asks, “How high?”

Such confusions point to a deeper inarticulacy about risk and inequality in the flexible economy. Within the hyper-positive culture of disruption, embracing risk and becoming more responsible for one’s personal “brand” are treated as being no different for, say, a twenty-six-year-old tech CEO and a sixty-year-old laid-off administrative assistant. But being a “nimble entrepreneur,” as meaningful as it might be in the short term, is simply unsustainable in the long term for people who have little power in the system and lack a financial safety net to catch them when they fall. Not everyone’s embrace of disruption carries the same kind of risk.

The twentieth-century regime of work time was no paradise. Many workers felt ruled by the clock and hollowed out by their career, but at least it was clear what the terms of the debate were and that there were distinct sides in the debate. What would it take to inject real debate about different kinds of disruption and their implications for different types of workers into the politics of work time today? There are some encouraging signs that such a debate is now emerging, mainly from efforts to collectively organize low-wage service workers. For example, in the summer of 2015, the Schedules That Work Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. The bill “would require companies to pay their employees for an extra hour if they were summoned to work with less than 24 hours’ notice,” and would mandate that workers be given “four hours’ pay on days when employees are sent home after just a few hours.”18 Similar creative thinking, though far less actionable, surrounds efforts to reform the FLSA. Scholars such as Susan Lambert have called for the addition of a minimum weekly hours requirement, which would accompany the continued fight to raise the minimum wage.19 Other ideas include eliminating loopholes that allow employers to exempt many part-time, casual, and contract workers from the FLSA in the first place,20 or, even more radically, a guaranteed minimum income tied to citizenship rather than employment.21

Such policies would not prevent disruption per se, but they would compensate workers for being willing to lead disruptable lives, catch them when they fall, and honor the fact that sacrificing security, predictability, and regularity is indeed a sacrifice. This agenda, aimed mainly at low-wage workers, needs to expand to also incorporate white-collar salaried workers.

Still, such legal and political efforts, while encouraging, neglect the fact that disruption is a culture with captivating narratives of the good life that champion traditional American values such as personal responsibility, entrepreneurialism, and hard work. Advocacy on behalf of vulnerable workers will thus require an equally compelling counter-narrative to disruption. This narrative must challenge the inequality baked right into flexible temporalities—their capacity to suck productivity from each second of the day and move the risk down to the least benefited workers—while still respecting the fact that becoming disruptable has its seductions.


  1. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 86–95.
  2. Peter Cappelli, The New Deal at Work: Managing the Market-Driven Workforce (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 59–61.
  3. Daniel A. Wren, The Evolution of Management Thought (New York, NY: Wiley, 1987), 251–252.
  4. Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling, The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream (New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 4.
  5. See, for example, Joseph W. McGuire, “Bankers, Books, and Businessmen,” Harvard Business Review 38, no. 4 (1960): 67–74.
  6. Christophe Lecuyer, Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and Growth of High Tech, 1930–1970 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 264–265.
  7. Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong,” New Yorker, June 23, 2014;
  8. Carrie M. Lane, A Company of One: Insecurity, Independence, and the New World of White-Collar Unemployment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 60.
  9. Harriet B. Presser, Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003), 49–50.
  10. Graham Sewell, “The Discipline of Teams: The Control of Team-Based Industrial Work through Electronic and Peer Surveillance,” Administrative Science Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1998): 397–428.
  11. Lonnie Golden, Irregular Work Scheduling and Its Consequences, Briefing Paper no. 394, Economic Policy Institute, April 9, 2015;
  12. Gillian B. White, “The Alarming, Long-Term Consequences of Workplace Stress,” Atlantic online, February 12, 2015;
  13. Martha Crowley, Daniel Tope, Lindsey Joyce-Chamberlain, and Randy Hodson, “Neo-Taylorism at Work: Occupational Change in the Post-Fordist Era,” Social Problems 57, no. 3 (2010): 421–47.
  14. Stephen R. Barley and Gideon Kunda, Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies: Itinerant Experts in a Knowledge Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 241–243.
  15. Luc Boltanksi and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York, NY: Verso, 2005), 57–99.
  16. Ibid. See also Carrie M. Lane, A Company of One, 60; Ofer Sharone, Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 21–27; Vicki Smith, Crossing the Great Divide: Worker Risk and Opportunity in the New Economy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 151–152.
  17. Jodi Kantor, “Working Anything but 9 to 5,” New York Times, August 13, 2014;
  18. Steven Greenhouse, “A Push to Give Steadier Shifts to Part-Timers,” New York Times, July 16, 2014;
  19. Susan J. Lambert, “When Flexibility Hurts,” New York Times, September 20, 2012;
  20. Peter Cappelli, “Rethinking Employment,” British Journal of Industrial Relations 33, no. 4 (1995): 563-602.
  21. Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London, England: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), 295–299.

Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Benjamin H. Snyder is a lecturer in sociology at Victoria University of Wellington. Portions of this essay will appear in his forthcoming book, The Disrupted Workplace: Time and the Moral Order of Flexible Capitalism.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.1 (Spring 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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