If I am not for sale, what am I?
Recently, I was chatting with a young friend. She mentioned that, with all the Covid lockdowns (she is in a country much harder hit than Bangladesh), she has learnt to do business online, selling herself as a yoga and meditation instructor. As the conversation continued, she explained that she was making more money doing online work than she previously had working for a major corporation, despite now putting in far fewer hours. "Everyone should learn to do this," she told me. "People think they need jobs, but this is actually a better way to make money." The trick, she explained, was to "learn to commodify yourself."
I confess, I was horrified. The idea that a bright young woman with many skills and talents would see herself as an object to be sold online was dispiriting and dehumanising. I also found her confidence that others could learn to do the same, and make good money that way, a bit delusional—her failure to recognise just how extremely exceptional she is.
Both issues are a problem. It is a problem that we assume that virtually everyone has a tiny entrepreneur inside of them, just waiting for an opportunity to reveal themselves.
It is also a problem that people, especially the youth, must now find ways to market themselves, not in terms of finding a regular job—which is growing ever harder in the gig economy—but in becoming something to sell online, like any other product.
More recently, I spoke with a young Bangladeshi man. I knew he enjoyed body-building; I assumed it was a passion of his. Well, perhaps it is, but as he explained, there are also possibilities of "selling himself" online as a fitness instructor. Like my other young friend, he saw no hope in the job market; the only way to earn money is to find a way to turn yourself into a desirable commodity.
Although it was an awfully long time ago, when I try to remember how I felt about the job market when I was in university or in my early 20s, it feels like the difference is huge and cannot simply be explained by my having been in the US rather than Bangladesh. After all, there, too, people are turning to other ways to earn a living, leaving traditional jobs.
Then again, perhaps the difference isn't as great as I would like to believe. I am from a generation that still believed in getting hired. We felt free to pursue degrees in the liberal arts or science—not just accounting and business. But—at least as women—we did feel the need, or at least the pressure, to package ourselves into something sufficiently attractive to appeal to both potential bosses and spouses. Our self-worth, as women, was too often defined by our outward appearance, not our inward traits, skills, talents, intelligence or abilities.
So yes, as a society, we have failed our young people in terms of creating job opportunities for them. Clearly many of them are finding ways to earn money in new ways by offering goods or services online. Perhaps all of this is natural and inevitable, especially in a world where we don't work to address inequality, where we fail to address the way that the very rich siphon off most of the wealth, and thus much of the population must struggle to get by.
But we also continue to fail our young people by sending the message that who you are is less important than how you look.
And when the need to earn money becomes an occasion for seeing yourself as something to offer up for sale, I cannot help but feel that our humanity is being chipped away.
Debra Efroymson is the executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing, Bangladesh, and author of "Beyond Apologies: Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing."