While formally derided as a demeaning and alienating form of service work (Sennett & Cobb, 1972), the recent re-emergence of craft cocktail bartending presents an interesting case study in which ‘authentic work’ may be explored, as a new class of affluent service economy workers seek to legitimize what was formerly considered a low-skilled, working-class occupation.
The growth of the craft cocktail industry mirrors similar patterns in coffee (Istanbullu Dinçer, 2016) and beer (Wallace, 2019), in which classically working-class industries are culturally aestheticized and then marketed to middle-class audiences as ‘authentic.’ As Skeggs (2005) argues, it is the very working-class sheen that makes these jobs register as authentic, echoing the history of dominant classes deploying working-class tastes to ward off criticisms of inauthenticity (Bourdieu, 1991; Friedman & Reeves, 2020; Savage 2015). And while the jobs themselves still reflect the classic markers of working-class compensation, involving precarious employment, absent of benefits and job security, fluctuating working hours, and a minimum-wage bolstered by uncertain tip income, many of the workers come from middle-class backgrounds, embodying the hallmarks of emotional and aesthetic investments acquired in the self-making institutions of the middle-class (Lloyd 2006; Ocejo, 2010). This presents an interesting paradox of downward social mobility in which these bartenders’ desires for authentic work replace the material financial rewards that their backgrounds largely enable them to receive within other industries.
To understand this material sacrifice, authentic work must be understood as representing a unique articulation of affective resistance, in which the growing corporate service economy’s demands of aesthetic and emotional labour — that is, the labour of explicitly managing one’s emotional regulation as a required component of their employment, exploited as profit (Hochschild, 1983) — are rejected in favour of a new perceived form of occupational autonomy (McRobbie, 2016). As Hochschild (1983) explains, “the more the heart is managed, the more we value the unmanaged [emphasis added] heart (p. 192). Authentic work provides an avenue through which the perceived alienation of emotional labour may be denied — a place where the employee can truly see themselves in the work they perform.
However, the sheen of authenticity can also function to conceal the material inequalities which underlie these new working relationships, involving progressively demanding immaterial barriers of entry for stagnant financial compensation (Levy & Kochan, 2012). While Hochschild (1983) elaborates on the deskilling now common within service work (p. 119), the craft cocktail industry actually inverts this logic, as previously working-class bartending jobs are now up-skilled in the form of their demands for uncompensated immaterial labour. This involves requiring bartenders to embody an upmarket aesthetic demeanour (Nickson et al., 2001) and exhibit fluency in professional ‘cool,’ (Liu, 2004) dispositions often born out of an affective ‘debt’ in the middle-class social milieu. Once employed, successful bartenders become subject to the “perpetual anxiety of lifelong learning” (Liu, 2004, p. 19), taking the form of uncompensated hours spent studying recipes and cocktail technique, networking at international cocktail conferences like Tales of the Cocktail, and obtaining expensive credentials in spirits education. The reward — authentic and meaningful work — is an immaterial compensation for what had to be earned through sustained financial investments made by the worker. Immaterial labour is thus exchanged for immaterial rewards, concealing the affective debt that provided access to these now up-skilled, yet still low-wage, jobs.
And yet, the interesting dilemma posed by authentic work is that though it may produce these financial inequalities and precarious working conditions, it is routinely shown to be a highly pleasurable experience for the worker, evoking affects of passion and love (von Osten, 2007). Simultaneously, by alleviating employee burnout and increasing productivity (Grandey et al., 2012), authenticity is also a mutually beneficial affect for the employer. The result is an unlikely affinity between instrumentally rational commercial imperatives and the worker’s embodied sense of self, in fact, the exact goal of companies that seek to normalize the performance of emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983).
This requires serious reflection: is ‘authentic’ work actually a rejection of the logic which enables emotional labour, or a new site in which it tacitly operates, now residing within the embodied affective debt that has been entirely off-shored onto the worker? And further, does authentic work truly provide the promise of being able to see oneself in one’s work, or do the immaterial and symbolic barriers of entry that enable the work to feel authentic actually reflect a relationship in which one’s ‘work’ is increasingly seen in one’s ‘self?’ By acknowledging the non-residence of affect (Ahmed, 2004), and therefore the ontologically divergent renderings that the affect of authenticity may construct (Ahmed, 2010), it becomes possible (and productive) to hold these seemingly contradictory realities in tension. In doing so, the affect of authenticity may, on the one hand, provide a legitimizing avenue through which workers may confront the pervasive affective demands of service economy work, while simultaneously “generating consent (or even passion) for working lives that, without this emotional and symbolic sheen, might appear arduous, tiring and exploitative” (Gill & Pratt, 2008, p. 17).
I, therefore, problematize this notion of the ‘unmanaged’ heart (Hochschild, 1983). By circulating the affect of authenticity within a semiotic framework of craftsmanship, low-wage, service economy employment like cocktail bartending is able to transfer the management of emotional labour directly to the employees themselves. Echoing Skeggs’ (2004) notion of the ‘exchange-value self,’ these employees are increasingly burdened with the task of self-making through labour, encouraged to embody entrepreneurial attitudes within jobs to which they have no real ownership (Thompson & McHugh, 2002). However, the tokenized ‘ownership’ is still transferred to these employees, taking the form of the uncompensated hours spent accumulating the capitals necessary to do the work — what Bourdieu (1984) calls “the tributes deprivation pays to possession” (p. 287). The eager claiming of this ownership through the paradigm of authentic work neatly mirrors the neoliberal logic of atomizing the social, in which the “state sanctioned hallmarks of ontological well-being” (Gregg, 2010, p. 251) become the worker’s responsibility to acquire. As long as the workers’ wages remain subject to exploitation by the companies that employ them, the workers function as the managers of the now self-directed affective labour that they are not being materially reimbursed to perform. What results is then not an unmanaged heart, but a self-managed heart; the affect of authenticity facilitating a transfer of power that may be both emancipatory and inequitable. The affective middle-class resistance to the conventional demands of emotional labour thus embodies curiously divergent futures — the ‘authentic’ work which self-actualizes the worker may simultaneously financially exploit them.
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