It’s not what you know, it’s who you know is perhaps the most repeated phrase when job-hunting. While there are multiple frustrating aspects of searching for a professional job in the United States—the corporate doublespeak when writing a résumé; the rehearsed (and oft false) answers to interview questions; the arbitrary and discriminatory rules such as not having any gaps between jobs; the questionable (and unethical) gimmicks one is encouraged to utilize to stand out from other applicants—the most insidious is perhaps networking. Whether one considers networking glorified cronyism or nepotism is up for debate. What is most surprising, however, is the lack of criticism this practice has received in the mainstream. Most articles one finds criticizing networking are all about rebranding networking as a way of curating friendships, or networking “smarter.” Rarely is there ever mention of how this is a means of commodifying friendships or it being another unfair hurdle added to the modern day rat race. Although networking in itself is not harmful—humans, after all, are social creatures and are apt to help out friends, family, and acquaintances—there is something particularly cruel about this practice given the lack of social safety net and saddling millions of young adults with student loan debt.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that a few decades ago people did not have to rely on relationships to find a comfortable job. Knowing someone in your desired career certainly helped, but the hiring process placed greater emphasis on one’s skills and education rather than one’s social circle. Today, knowing the right people can determine whether or not you are able to enter and thrive in a specific field. This essentially favors individuals from upper-class and mostly white backgrounds. For people with the right contacts, the tiresome advice given to other job hunters does not apply. Don’t have any experience in such-and-such field? That’s fine, you can still get your résumé at the top of the pile! Do you suffer from social anxiety? Don’t worry, I’ll give you some background info on the person who will be interviewing you so you can knock their socks off. Even for the most confident and extroverted individuals, soliciting help from their social network—especially contacts who are mere acquaintances or friends of friends—can be a demoralizing and uncomfortable dance given the power imbalance and the taboo of being unemployed. While this discomfort will likely lessen as one becomes more established in a career, it adds to the ever-increasing belief of favoritism and (oftentimes) superficial relationships being more important in getting ahead than actual performance. It is impossible to prevent all leaders from playing favorites in the workplace, but networking itself would be more ethical if it were not for certain benefits being tied directly to employment. Since this practice is most helpful when finding cushy professional jobs—jobs that provide adequate health insurance, generous paid family and sick leave, a livable wage, and in some cases, access to on-site childcare—one’s social ties can mean the difference between living comfortably and living in poverty.
The pandemic has exposed the unfairness of this system, especially since many working essential jobs—warehouse workers, grocery store clerks, Uber and Lyft drivers, et cetera—possess few if any of these benefits. Millions of young people are struggling to pay off student loan debt and do not have the luxury of taking on internships (most of which have replaced the standard entry-level job and are simply seeking cheap labor) which could provide contacts in their desired field. For first generation college graduates and individuals from working class backgrounds, the ability to move upwards is even more daunting given their families are less likely to have the magical connections to score a stable, high-paying job. For those who have the financial means to take on multiple internships in the hopes of scoring a dream job in a big city, they are still at a disadvantage since the person with the lucky connection, regardless if he or she fits the bare minimum job requirements, is more likely to score an interview. This not only shuts out a huge sector of the working population, propagating income and racial inequality, but also promotes a culture of mediocrity. Since we tend to surround ourselves with likeminded people, new ideas and modes of thinking will likely go unheard. If one does have a radical idea, one may be less eager to speak up in an effort to not reflect poorly on a contact. In some cases, the benefit of having a connection can backfire: such contact may decide for whatever reason to close the gate to any job opportunities, leaving the aspiring applicant even more helpless in getting a foot in the proverbial door.
When people voice their frustrations over the cutthroat economy, rarely is there mention of changing the economy itself. Simply shrugging or repeating the cliché “that’s just the way things are” ignores the economic precariousness a majority of Americans are living in. While some may erroneously blame universities for inadequately preparing graduates for the job market (ignoring the fact that university should primarily be a place of fostering critical thinking and a love for lifelong learning) or Millennials and Gen Z for being too entitled, one fact is largely ignored: the economy is a human construct. In the wealthiest country in the world, nobody should be too poor to live or have to rely on shallow friendships to make a halfway decent living. The entire social safety net must be strengthened and provide universal benefits, and thanks to presidential candidates such as Andrew Yang, talks of a universal basic income have garnered support. Perhaps once all Americans are able to live comfortably and pursue work they themselves find rewarding, we can begin fostering more meaningful relationships that are not a means of simply getting ahead in an unjust system.