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Managing Portfolio Lives: Flexibility and Privilege Amongst Upscale Restaurant Workers in Los Angeles

Abstract

The unstable, even precarious labor conditions of many frontline service jobs in the United States should render them undesirable to upwardly mobile young workers. Yet for many, these types of jobs complement, rather than infringe upon, their broader lifestyles. Drawing on six years of ethnographic research in upscale Los Angeles restaurants, I show how front-of-the-house service workers navigate portfolio lives—sustained though shifting arrangements of labor and leisure that blur the boundaries between the two. I describe how these workers, who are mostly young, white, and college educated, leverage both personal resources and workplace structures to weave their restaurant jobs into their larger webs of activities. I close by discussing how the concept of portfolio lives extends theories of boundaryless work careers to the urban service economy, though these dynamic assemblages remain subject to class and race inequalities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The same standards do not apply to most noninteractive service jobs away from customers. These types of jobs, often in the same establishment, are coded as work for unskilled, nonwhite immigrants (Gomberg-Muñoz 2011; Waldinger and Lichter 2003).

  2. 2.

    Because of my position as a server, my data is slightly skewed toward the perspective of other servers, as opposed to other kinds of front-of-the-house workers.

  3. 3.

    All informants are referred to using pseudonyms. I also conducted over thirty additional interviews with back-of-the-house workers and managers as a part of a larger research project.

  4. 4.

    Ray (2018: Chapter 6) argues that the “haphazard” and part-time employment of marginalized urban youth contributes to their inability to rise beyond the “service class” and into better jobs.

  5. 5.

    By contrast, back-of-the-house service workers at each restaurant were primarily Latino immigrants with low levels of formal education. I take up a systematic comparison of front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house workers elsewhere (Wilson 2017).

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Acknowledgements

In addition to several anonymous reviewers who reviewed this manuscript, I would like to thank Alexandre Frenette, Claudio Benzecry, Michael Siciliano, Ruben Hernandez-Leon, Kyle Nelson, and the UCLA Ethnography Working Group for helpful feedback on previous versions of this paper. I would like to acknowledge the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment for funding support on this research.

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Correspondence to Eli R. Wilson.

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Wilson, E.R. Managing Portfolio Lives: Flexibility and Privilege Amongst Upscale Restaurant Workers in Los Angeles. Qual Sociol 42, 321–336 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-019-09420-4

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Keywords

  • Service work
  • Work careers
  • Labor markets
  • Ethnography
  • Inequality
  • Restaurants
  • Young workers