Working on the wild side
In the United States, work is a central dimension of adult life and a critical site through which we articulate who we are and who we want to be. Recent economic trends indicate that the middle class is shrinking, bottle-necking more working people into the burgeoning informal economy marked by lower-wages, at-will employment, few benefits, and the loss of collective bargaining rights. This study examines how men and women workers in the informal economy negotiate a sense of self within and through the structures that shape their working lives. Using standpoint theory and institutional ethnographic methodologies, this study explores identity negotiation processes and outcomes through interviews with 40 New Orleans-area bartenders. A comparative analysis between men and women bartenders identifies the rebel worker as an affirmative and self-made occupational identity formed in relationship to structures that produce vulnerability and instability. Identity negotiations among men and among women reveal that ascriptive statuses play a critical role in how work is experienced and navigated—rebel barkeeps and rebel barmaids are the gendered manifestations of workplace self-development projects that are formed in relationship to broader gender hegemonies. Finally, this study analyzes the impact of the rebel worker identity on the non-working lives of bartenders across and within gender statuses to map how the structures that shape our working selves are refracted and implicated within the intimate, non-working dimensions of bartenders’ lives, particularly in bartenders’ negotiations with family life. This study finds that the development of self-made identities is negotiated in relationship to relations of ruling that produce marginalizing effects in bartenders’ lives. The individualization of marginalization results in participants internalizing the outcomes of marginality rather than localizing and politicizing the outcomes of informal economies within broader relations of ruling. Moreover, identity projects through work are not only gendered, but play a central role in workers’ considerations of their opportunity structures beyond the workplace. As the informal economy continues to grow, the entrenchment of instability and vulnerability could play a central role in who Americans think they are and what they believe is possible for their futures.