On Pivoting: How We Talk About Labor - Pacific Standard

On Pivoting: How We Talk About Labor

Euphemisms offer important comfort in a recession. They also tend to exclude the people hit hardest.
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(Illustration: Jon Burgerman)

(Illustration: Jon Burgerman)

When Kay Pagans was laid off in 1999, she had just completed her 23rd year making textiles for Bassett-Walker, Inc., a Virginia-based company specializing in fleece sweatshirts and jogging pants. The North American Free Trade Agreement was five years old, and manufacturing outfits across the country were rapidly shuttering plants. Rather than stick around a declining industry, Pagans decided to go back to school for her associate degree, using funds from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, a federal program that offers benefits to people laid off when their jobs move overseas.

Pagans puts it more simply: She went back to school “under trade act.”

Shorthand like “under trade act,” or “the trade,” another riff on the TAA (as in, “I did the trade and now I work in health care”), requires no glossing among displaced manufacturing workers, which is the point: It’s a single neat phrase that tells the whole story of cheaper imports, struggling plants, massive layoffs, and worker re-training. “You didn’t have to say you were laid off, or doing OJT [on-the-job training],” Pagans told me. “You didn’t have to explain yourself.” The fact that you were “doing the trade” explained it for you.

"People forget that euphemisms help them cope with the horrible, messy reality of life."

Euphemistic jargon about labor and shifting macroeconomics has been with us for a very long time, particularly phrases that describe being dismissed from a job. The saying “you’re not worth your salt” means you’re not worth your wages, and dates to Ancient Rome, when soldiers were given an allowance to buy salt, valuable for preserving food. (This allowance, called a salarium argentum, is also the origin for the word salary.) “Sacked,” a synonym for fired, dates to the 19th century or perhaps even earlier, when a worker was handed back his sack of tools upon dismissal. In the 20th century, employees were “pink-slipped.” Words and technologies change, but the message remains couched in abstracted language to soften the blow.

Not too long before I spoke to Pagans, I heard a new version of the old circumlocution. I was telling a friend about my teaching contract not being renewed, and he told me not to worry. “You’ll find something,” he said. “Or you’ll pivot.” It was a comforting thought. In sports, but also, it seems, in life, pivoting means changing direction by spinning on a single foot, then taking one step, and one step only. It means staying connected to the place you began. You won’t have to look too far afield for new work, my friend seemed to be saying; the change won’t be too overwhelming.

For many workers without a college education, however, it doesn’t work this way; their paths often contain crevices, even craters. When Pagans went back to school, she made a complete break from textile work. “The change was so dramatic,” Pagans said. “You’re going from using your body, using your muscles, to using your head.” I asked Pagans if she was familiar with the concept of pivoting. Do manufacturing workers doing the trade “pivot” to new work? She hadn’t heard of it, and sensed it did not apply to factory workers. She told me, “You’re talking about white-collar work.”

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The modern use of pivot first became trendy in Silicon Valley, when start-up gurus drafted the word to describe how certain storied companies developed their ideas amid failure and uncertainty. YouTube began as a video-dating site, and Twitter began as Odeo, a podcasting company, but rather than completely discarding these imperfect visions, their founders tweaked, mixed, and re-directed until they hit upon the right formula. “Successful start-ups change directions but stay grounded in what they’ve learned,” Eric Ries, an entrepreneur credited with coining the term, wrote in 2009. “They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future. Over time, this pivoting may lead them far afield from their original vision, but if you look carefully, you’ll be able to detect common threads that link each iteration.

Part of the appeal of pivoting for techies, it seems, is that it re-frames the narrative: The stops and starts, the failures and risks (and also the randomness and luck) intrinsic to starting your own company become something exciting and intentional. The term injects an attractive sense of control into the entrepreneurial process. Pivoting is a comforting concept because it makes false starts and wrong turns seem almost purposeful—as if those in charge deliberately created roadblocks to test and improve the product, viewing partial failure as merely another opportunity.

As pivot has extended its lexical reach beyond Silicon Valley, it has morphed into a more generic term for dynamic, strategic adaptation. The writer David Infante says that he sees his fellow Millennials increasingly leaving traditional jobs to pursue creative endeavors, where they live by a mantra of “win, lose, pivot.” Life coaches, who 10 years ago might have advised Baby Boomers to translate pre-Internet skills into a career change, today advise them to make a career pivot. At times, pivoting sounds absurd. The Pivot Conference, a one-day networking event, aims to provide “the insights and connections you need to remain agile and impactful in a Social/ Digital world.” Given the term’s trajectory, it’s not too difficult to imagine it as a catchy lifestyle brand (“Just Pivot!”), promoting the virtues of constant, uncomplicated forward adaptation—a world with no baggage, no drama, no self-doubt, and no anxiety over change.

Taking pivot to its logical extreme, then, reveals how euphemistic the word has become. All euphemisms involve a combination of dishonesty and positive shading, Kate Burridge, euphemism expert and professor of linguistics at Monash University, told me. They often emerge out of a desire to be polite. We say that someone has “passed away.” We ask if a couple is “sleeping together.” Euphemisms are “a verbal escape hatch,” she said: “A way to avoid something you don’t want to talk about explicitly.”

Over the past couple of decades, people have come to think of euphemisms as primarily menacing and manipulative, Burridge said, likening them to George Orwell’s famous characterization of political language as “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” While Burridge said this characterization is sometimes apt (think “friendly fire” or “collateral damage”), most euphemisms are double-edged. While they mask and cloak, they also ease and lighten. Burridge said pivot sounded immediately good to her because it highlighted “positive aspects” of career and life changes, “as if you are in control, whether or not you are.”

“People forget that euphemisms help them cope with the horrible, messy reality of life,” she said. At a time when many people can’t hold a job, let alone secure long-term employment, pivot helps some people save face.

Manufacturing workers don't pivot partly because, in the face of international trade agreements closing plants and decimating towns, it's not really possible to pretend they control their trajectories.

The thing is, it turns out that’s a very specific group of people. As Kay Pagans observed, pivot contains implications of class and social hierarchy. The word sounds right only if certain people say it—the kind of people who, we like to think, have the ability, the agency, to define their lives. If not, the term sounds discordant; it stretches credulity too much. Manufacturing workers don’t pivot partly because, in the face of international trade agreements closing plants and decimating towns, it’s not really possible to pretend they control their trajectories.

“They don’t have any agency in what happens to them,” Beth Macy, author of Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, told me. “You’re talking about people like you and me,” she said, when I asked her who pivots. It’s a telling disparity. White-collar workers from journalists to publishers to television executives have seen their careers upended by technological innovations and macroeconomic forces too. But because of their skills, education, and class, they are able to pivot. Or, more precisely, they have a place toward which to pivot. When blue-collar workers try the same thing, they often find themselves moving to a place where there is no ground to catch them. If you’re a member of the wrong class, in other words, pivoting may prove drastically insufficient. Perhaps this is why we say that manufacturing workers are “displaced.” They have no definite place toward which to take their next professional step.

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Kay Pagans’ path became more coherent after she went back to school, which makes her story somewhat unusual among displaced workers. After she completed her associate degree, Pagans continued on to her bachelor’s, and finally a master’s in business administration. Today, she works for West Piedmont Regional Adult Education, helping teachers find the resources to implement career-readiness curricula. But many workers who “do the trade” continue to struggle. According to a 2012 study conducted for the Department of Labor, only 37 percent of those who received training under the TAA found jobs in their new areas of expertise. Sometimes, new jobs required re-locations that workers couldn’t make. Other times, the available positions were only part-time, so trainees took less-skilled, full-time work in service and food industries instead. Given these outcomes, many younger displaced workers are opting not to go back to school. “They’re not seeing where the better jobs are,” Pagans said of workers she knows. “They’re thinking, why should I bother?”

Young, college-educated workers certainly have more hopeful prospects, but it’s not clear that pivoting will lead to prosperity, even for them. The Millennial generation was hit especially hard by the recession, which means its members are earning less than previous generations of young workers, and a euphemism can only do so much to mask dismal economic realities. Moreover, constant movement from career to career, even among skilled workers, might make it even more difficult to recoup financial losses. “If people don’t have the discipline to settle down, if they don’t stop ‘shopping,’ then they don’t accumulate the skills and the experience that lead to increased wages,” said Harry Holzer, a non-resident senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “They’re not developing the seniority that the labor market rewards.”

Euphemisms tend to fall out of favor, Burridge told me, because they gradually acquire the negative meanings they were originally meant to obscure. It probably won’t be long before pivot fails to provide any comfort at all. By then, of course, we’ll likely have created new euphemisms for job loss and career change—ones that similarly contribute to the stratified ways we talk about labor. And this may be the real failure of pivot and other euphemisms adopted from Silicon Valley: The problem is not that we depend on them to make it through the day, but that, in leavening feelings of disappointment and uncertainty, they come to exclude the labor experiences that cut across class boundaries—like the experience of losing a job. After all, Kay Pagans and I were both sacked.

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