While academic and public debate focuses on the employment conditions faced by young people (including unemployment and precarity), something new and unexamined has taken place in the relationship between youth and work in the contemporary economy. That is, the quality of ‘youthfulness’ has become disassociated from ‘young people’ themselves, becoming a product of work and a critical dimension of value creation in the contemporary economy. This has taken place as a result of transformations in the nature of labour.
Contemporary young people are at the forefront of what has been called ‘immaterial labour’ (Lazzarato, 1996), or forms of work aimed at producing immaterial products such as interactions, sensations, and symbols. One key example of immaterial labour is interactive service work, in which the key product of the labour is an interaction between a worker and a consumer. This interaction may involve selling a material commodity (such as in the retail sector), but the value of this commodity is not inherent in the material object itself. Instead, value is produced in the interactions that constitute the labour, and workers must attribute commodities and interactions themselves with value. This has changed the nature of the working self. We can no longer understand the working self in terms of specific ‘skills’ that are exchanged on the labour market in exchange for a wage. Instead, immaterial labour creates value from a worker’s subjectivity, and actually positions subjectivity itself as a product of work. Immaterial labour also encompasses activities outside of paid employment, so long as they produce value.
An example of young people’s role in these processes can be found in the culture industries. Since the emergence of mass consumption after the second world war, young people have been attributed with high levels of pop cultural awareness and a capacity for spontaneous, hedonistic consumption. Contemporary youth cultures are contexts in which what counts as ‘cool’, edgy or up-to-date cultural consumption is defined. In particular industries, youthfulness is explicitly invoked as the basis for creativity and the production of new aesthetic styles. Angela McRobbie’s (2003) study of the British fashion industry shows that young people’s participation in youth cultures formed the basis for new aesthetic trends in the culture industries. Here, youth cultures – which are supposedly leisure activities – have become critical inputs into the way that value is produced in the culture industries. Youth cultures in this sense are forms of immaterial labour.
The value of youthfulness is also recognised in the fields of business and marketing. Research in this area advises brands to cultivate a ‘youthful’ image, which is designed to give them a fun, high energy and contemporary feel, and the attribution of a youthful image to products is considered a means by which to encourage hedonistic consumption (Aaker, 1997; Orth, Limon and Rose, 2010). This also has an impact on the requirements placed upon young people at work. The work of Pettinger (2004; 2005) shows how young women working in fashion retail stores are expected to embody the aesthetic and symbolic image of the brand in the course of their labour, dressing in clothes parallel to the style of their stores and modelling the image of the brand. Fashion retail outlets also recruit young workers from their own customer base, offering young workers with the right look and youthful style employment while they are themselves shopping in an outlet (Williams and Connell, 2010). This practice positions young people as savvy consumers of the brand, rather than workers or employees. Working for ‘cool brands’ also operates as a symbolic marker of ‘cool’ in young people’s broader social lives (Williams and Connell, 2010).
In this economic situation, ‘youthfulness’ is not merely something that is inherent in young bodies. Rather, it is a quality that is produced in the course of work, and it is a quality that contributes a unique form of value to the contemporary economy. In particular, the quality of youthfulness is mobilized to offer the possibility of hedonistic consumption and the symbolic distinction of cutting-edge style. Youthfulness circulates in economic networks to attribute value to interactions, material commodities and – critically – to young workers themselves. This contributes to new inequalities amongst young people.
Young women in particular are called upon to cultivate heterosexualised embodied performances in order to attribute value to products. An example of this can again be found in interactive service work and in fashion retail, in which young women are employed in ‘front of house’ roles because their demeanour is seen as particularly pleasing to consumers. On the other hand, traditional forms of working class masculinity that rejected a cultivated appearance and an interest in popular culture are now positioned as the antithesis of modes of youthfulness that are valorised in the contemporary economy.
Valorised youthfulness is in this sense unevenly socially distributed. It is neither free, nor is it inherent in young people. Instead, it is an economic product, a quality that circulates in the economy to create value in some and to devalorise others. Studying this quality represents a new research agenda in the study of youth and work, beyond studies of employment conditions and towards a new understanding of youth, labour and value in the contemporary economy.
Further reading: Farrugia, D. 2017. Youthfulness and Immaterial Labour in the New Economy. The Sociological Review, https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026117731657.
Aaker, J. (1997). Dimensions of brand personality. Journal of Marketing Research, 34, 347–356.
Lazzarato, M. (1996). Immaterial Labour. In: VIRNO, P. & HARDT, M. (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
McRobbie, A. (2003). British fashion design. New York, NY: Routledge.
Orth, U., Limon, Y., & Rose, G. (2010). Store-evoked affect, personalities, and consumer emotional attachments to brands. Journal of Business Research, 63, 1202–1208.
Pettinger, L. (2004). Brand culture and branded workers: Service work and aesthetic labour in fashion retail. Consumption, Markets and Culture, 7, 165–184.
Pettinger, L. (2005). Gendered work meets gendered goods: Selling and service in clothing retail. Gender, Work and Organisation, 12, 460–478.
Williams, C., & Connell, C. (2010). ‘Looking good and sounding right’: Aesthetic labour and social inequality in the retail industry. Work and Occupations, 37, 349–377.
ARC DECRA Fellow
University of Newcastle, Australia