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Laboring under Uncertainty: Identity Renegotiation among Contingent Workers


Direct all correspondence to Irene Padavic, Florida State University, Department of Sociology, Tallahassee, FL 32306–2270; e-mail:


Relying on interviews with contingent workers in diverse jobs, this article explores the motivations underlying worker consent, in particular, workers' commitment to employers who did little to encourage it. Driven by the need to address the “spoiled identity” problem brought on by contingent employment, workers engaged in identity-management strategies that included the following: defining a willingness to work hard rather than the job per se as determinative of personal value, asserting an alternative vocation as one's appropriate identity-conferring occupation, and aligning with managers as a reference group. These strategies had the ideological effect of reaffirming a managerial ideology that hampered the ability to formulate a critique of existing employment relations. A much smaller group, made up of disillusioned day laborers with few illusions about middle-class respectability, rejected identity-management strategies and regarded their relationship with employers in the purely instrumental terms that the business press assumes would apply to all workers. The article concludes that cultural lag and the raw appeal of the notion of a caring employer may underlie the persistence of the accommodationist orientations displayed by most of these workers.