Managing the self in low wage service jobs: a case of fast food work
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In this dissertation, I explore the dynamics of how people manage their self-concept in low wage service jobs. Analyses based on qualitative data from participant observation and in-depth interviews in a national fast food chain show that such jobs challenge employees' efforts to sustain a coherent and positive sense of self. Two groups of employees expressed distinctive ways of managing their self-concept at work. First, I describe how a group of younger employees constructed their fast food jobs as "way stations" - temporary stops before moving on. They showed efforts of distancing from the work and of qualifying self involvement at work. Second, I describe how a group of older employees managed their self-concept by restructuring the boundary between their work domain and personal domain. They drew on personal identities based on roles outside of work or personal attributes to help them achieve and continue to sustain a coherent and distinctive sense of self. More than age differences, the analyses further illuminate the social economic embeddedness of the two groups that shapes the strategies of managing the self. These findings add new dimensions to scholarly conversations about identity work in challenging work environments. Finally, I explored how employees enacted their personal identities in the workplace by creating a set of social norms and behavioral patterns associated with "working like adults". In doing so, the employees sustained a positive sense of self by transforming mundane routinized work tasks into apparatuses for enacting the ideal "adult" worker image. This dissertation contributes to the understanding of identity dynamics in low-wage service jobs. The findings suggest that when the current domain of work does not support a coherent sense of self, people draw elements from their personal domain which may in turn transform the meanings of the work.
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