Crisis in the Chip Industry and the Fragmentation of Community
By: Sarah Appelhans
“This industry is really cyclical, up and down, up and down, up and down.” Hazeem (M, 56, Pakistan) is an old-timer in the semiconductor industry. He came to the U.S. for his undergraduate degree, stayed for a PhD, and eventually found himself employed during the golden years at Motorola in the mid-1990s. “In those days,” he reflected, “manufacturing started to move away from the U.S. You started to see layoffs, lots of fabs shutting down. Layoffs right and left. Pretty intense.”
Over the following years, Hazeem hopped from company to company, location to location. Work cultures ranged from “scientific sweatshops” (Hazeem’s term) where teams of immigrant engineers worked around the clock, to family-friendly companies that prided themselves on their inclusive cultures. Although the wages are good in semiconductors, the work is unpredictable. Chip manufacturing relies upon heavy investments in research and development (R&D) to sustain the rapid pace of innovation. It is a high-risk, high-reward game as companies race to be first to market on the latest chip generations. Companies go through cycles, ramping up R&D for new product lines and then downsizing when the project is finished or when the company can no longer afford to continue. The industry is also very sensitive to booms and busts in the financial sector, which often correspond with layoffs, mergers, buyouts, and company failures (Brown and Linden 2009).
Engineers who work in this industry have become accustomed to experiencing a layoff every five years or so, after which hundreds of engineers are left adrift after their departments are eliminated, following their area of expertise to its next location. The semiconductor network is vast, dispersed in small manufacturing hubs that span the continental United States, along with locations in Europe, Singapore, China, South Korea and Taiwan. Most will have to move out-of-state, or even internationally.
“The cyclical nature, for the first time when I saw this, it really affected me,” Hazeem says. “You walk in [the day of a layoff], you figure out that more than 50% of your friends are leaving. Just gone! Really a lot of heartbreak. I know so many people who went through their whole life savings just to survive. They couldn’t find a job.”
The chip industry can be an exciting career for young engineers, but navigating one crisis after another becomes draining over the years. If he could do it over again, Hazeem reflects, he would not go into semiconductors. “I would have waited and found something I would have really liked to do in engineering,” he says. Sometimes he fantasizes about owning a bakery in Germany, living the easy life. “You can live a retirement life,” he muses, “you can relax. I might do that one day.”
“The necessity of being geographically mobile in semiconductors undermines many of the communities in which engineers find meaning in their lives – their families, their neighborhoods, their religious communities, and many more. Community fragmentation is the backdrop to an imprecise sense of loss that they work to repair, whether it refers to family, identity, belonging, or security.”
Semiconductor engineering is a profession that many would point to as a “good job”. Employees in this industry earn high wages and live in affluent neighborhoods. Most have graduate degrees. The pay inequalities that have dogged other immigrant employees, including those in the closely-related information technology (IT) sector, are not as noticeable in the chip industry. However, the uncertainty of the industry is a disruptive force in the lives of these high-tech workers, destabilizing their families and communities.
My fieldwork (2018-2019) took place in the midst of one such crisis – a substantial layoff in which over 400 engineers were downsized. In the aftermath of the crisis, I interviewed over 35 engineers and conducted regular follow ups with 17 families over the next year. The experience of crisis caused many of the engineers I spoke with – both immigrants and U.S. citizens – to reflect upon how to find meaning in a life that is built upon an unstable foundation. Despite the pride engineers feel in their work, many harbored regrets over a life solely dedicated to work, and searched for ways to actively cultivate community in their lives on the move.
Flexibilization and the Fragmentation of Communities
The necessity of being geographically mobile in semiconductors undermines many of the communities in which engineers find meaning in their lives – their families, their neighborhoods, their religious communities, and many more. Community fragmentation is the backdrop to an imprecise sense of loss that they work to repair, whether it refers to family, identity, belonging, or security. This is an often-overlooked consequence of the broader trend of neoliberal flexibilization that has impacted numerous industries in the U.S. and abroad. Geographic mobility amongst employees is the result of “flexible” manufacturing, wherein manufacturing processes are deconstructed, deskilled and off-shored to various locations around the world. For factory workers, outsourcing typically results in job loss since companies can find low-wage labor in the new location. However, engineering labor is not as easily found abroad, so engineers are recruited, through both push- and pull-incentives, to follow the work to its new location. Flexible labor is an important practice that enables the industry to be profitable.
Amongst professional workers, flexibility is often portrayed as a benefit. In the age of “self-entrepreneurship” (Foucault 2004), working professionals are entreated to take charge of their own careers, to “brand” and market themselves, to maintain their own professional networks, and to proactively job-hop to find more advantageous opportunities. Work-related travel is valorized as a symbol of luxury (Gregg 2008) and the ability to work remotely from anywhere in the world – including from the comfort of your own home – is a recruitment tactic, particularly for younger employees. This trend has accelerated as a result of the pandemic, in which most industries learned to accommodate remote work. However, under the guise of these benefits, the flexible workplace has shifted risk from employers to employees (Martin 1994; Gregg 2008). Without dedicated “work spaces” and “work times”, all spaces and all times become opportunities in which employees can be expected to work (Gregg 2008). And in the
event of downsizing, which happens more frequently these days for white-collar workers (Kalleberg 2011), employees are expected to rely on their own professional networks and personal resilience to find a new position.
Perhaps less appreciated is the impact flexibilization has had on the fragmentation of communities (Chamberlain 2018). The result of “self-entrepreneurialism” is a hyper-individualist mindset, in which employees are encouraged to see themselves as individual strivers, separable from their families and communities, able to be picked up and deposited in a new location with minimal interference (see also Gershon 2017).
“Semiconductor engineers do not necessarily question the costs of the flexibilization of their lives. However, they do feel the loss of some ineffable something. Embedded within a culture of self-entrepreneurialism, engineers often strive to reconstruct a greater sense of meaning in their lives through self-improvement and personal growth.”
However, as feminist anthropologists have long insisted, families are the central unit of migration, not individuals (Ong 1999). The semiconductor industry is beset by problems resulting from society’s failure to accommodate dual-spouse employment (Federici 2012). Work-related relocation is tricky in households where both spouses work. In semiconductors, spouses are sometimes separated for months or years in order for both spouses to remain employed. Parenting and family life must be reimagined under scenarios in which one parent lives hundreds of miles away. These situations create immense distress, both for the parent who is raising children alone and for the parent who is separated. As for extended families, the maintenance of long-distance ties is often facilitated through the technologies that semiconductor engineers have facilitated – cell phones, video calls, and group texts (Baldassar 2007; Diminescu 2008; Lim 2016).
Local, everyday communities are perhaps the most difficult social structure to maintain over long distances. My participants essentially reassembled their local communities after every move. In new neighborhoods where they have few connections, they leverage their own networks, including professional societies, immigrant networks, and work groups to rebuild the frameworks of social support. They re-establish membership in local chapters of their religious organizations. They locate ethnic communities where they can pass on their cultural knowledge and native languages to their children. They find new hobby communities, such as running groups, yoga studios, and dance groups to cultivate friendships and activities outside of work. These “third spaces” are essential for newcomers’ experiences of belonging and wellbeing in a new area (Hollinshead 2004).
“Bucket Lists” and the Crisis of Meaning
Neoliberal flexibilization has resulted in a disconnection from the meaningfulness of life that is sustained, in large part, by communities. Scholars such as Chamberlain (2018) and Berlant (2011) have argued that individualization and self-reliance cultivated under flexible regimes has undermined and weakened the communities that provide the care and social belonging that are essential to human well-being. Semiconductor engineers do not necessarily question the costs of the flexibilization of their lives. However, they do feel the loss of some ineffable something. Embedded within a culture of self-entrepreneurialism, engineers often strive to reconstruct a greater sense of meaning in their lives through self-improvement and personal growth. However, many have come to appreciate the importance of collective belonging, which they cultivate through extended family connections, immigrant communities, and religious organizations.
Such was the case for Ravishankar (M, 44, India), a computer engineer in the semiconductor industry, whose search for “the good life” has led him to prioritize his personal health, leisure activities and community engagement. I went to visit him one beautiful summer day at his home, nearly a year after the layoff in which one third of his coworkers had been let go. Although Ravi himself was spared, the crisis was yet another reminder that the next calamity could be just around the corner. As we sat near the sunny patio doors, the conversation turned to Ravi’s bucket list. He had been postponing things for quite a while, he confided to me, and he felt unsettled with the length of the list and how it kept growing.
“Indians, since Independence [from Britain], are very productivity-oriented,” he told me. “Your life is about your work. You work and then you go home.” People put off things that are important to them until retirement, he explained. But by then, they are too sick or too immobile to actually follow through. For this reason, Ravi prioritized marathon running and yoga, hoping this would keep his body healthy as he got older, enabling him to fully enjoy the “good life” whenever it emerged.
However, other things he had meant to do for some time kept piling up. That summer, he planned to take his family on a vacation to an East Coast beach resort. Usually, Ravi would save all his vacation days for a trip to India to visit his extended family. However, his sons had been pleading for a “normal” American vacation, so he had relented. This family dilemma revealed tensions surrounding Ravi’s obligations to his extended family, which hampered his ability to travel for leisure. Many of his friends in the Indian community regularly went on cruises, a privilege of being global citizens. As a compromise, Ravi suggested a trip to the beach instead.
“The chip industry is a microcosm of this larger awakening, in which cyclical crisis reveals what has been lost.”
In her study of Indian IT workers in Berlin, Amrute (2016) argues that leisure activities constitute a form of resistance to the continuous expansion of work life into home life. Caught between the “cruel optimism” (Berlant 2011) of the lack of fulfillment through work and the “imagined critical utopias” (Weeks 2014) of a more leisurely lifestyle, workers take pleasure in their lives outside of work as an act of resistance. However, Gregg (2018) argues that productivity discourses re-emerge in the form of “someday lists,” which encourage workers to delay or eliminate tasks that do not have productive value. “Unimportant” or “nonurgent” luxuries, such as hobbies and vacations are postponed until an imagined time in the future, envisioned as rewards for self-discipline. However, as the list grows longer and dreams go unfulfilled, the “someday list” instead becomes a source of guilt, a reminder of things that one has not prioritized and may never accomplish. For Ravi, his bucket list is a reminder of the things he has sacrificed as he has followed his work from location to location around the world.
Feeling the loss of something still deeper than his individual health and leisure, Ravi had also dedicated himself to volunteer work at the Hindu Cultural Center. “I am stuck in this job, there is no bright light,” he said, referring to his reliance on an employment visa. “But the most important thing is I have family, I want to keep my house, my friends, I have community. There is only one life, I won’t live a hundred years.” In an ideal world, Ravi told me he would work four days a week and devote the fifth day to service. This follows from the teaching of a guru Ravi has been following for several decades now. Service work is thus not only an opportunity to maintain connection with his community, but a source of spiritual meaning that makes him feel he is living a life of value.
With so much of their lives unsettled, engineers in the chip industry invest tremendous effort to create stability in a life spent on the move. In the absence of a stable foundation, they reimagine and reconstruct community anew in each location, finding meaning in a life that feels increasingly fragmented.
What is a Good Life?
The crisis of meaning experienced by engineers in the semiconductor industry may feel familiar to workers in other professions. Layoffs, which have been on the rise in many professions, rippled throughout Silicon Valley in the spring of 2023 (Rawlinson 2023; Spiers 2023). Headlines in major news outlets, often a reflection of public sentiment, indicated renewed skepticism about the benefits of flexibilization (Turner 2023) and new orientations toward time management and work-life balance (Miller 2023; Marchese 2023). Meanwhile, the surgeon general deemed loneliness a new American public health threat (Nirappil 2023), exhorting the nation to “mend the social fabric of the nation.” Like semiconductor engineers, the occasion of crisis has caused many to reflect upon work conditions and the “good life,” asking why we work so hard for so little reward, and whether we have been undervaluing our communities.
While “polycrisis” is commonly framed as an unprecedented crisis of contemporary life, the experience of precarity and crisis are predictable results of global capitalism (Neilson and Rossiter 2008). Workers in the Global South have faced these same conditions of precarity – job loss, unpredictable work, migrant labor, lack of leisure time, etc. (Munck 2013; Scully 2016). The American middle-class has largely been sheltered from the worst outcomes through labor protections under Fordism, such as regulated work hours and mandatory employee benefits. As these protections decline, the experience of precarity continues to creep up the economic ladder into the professional class (Kalleberg 2011).
The chip industry is a microcosm of this larger awakening, in which cyclical crisis reveals what has been lost. Engineers in this industry were promised the “good life”, characterized by high wages, fulfilling work, flexibility, and leisure time. Although this career promises the excitement of developing cutting edge technology, global travel, and a life of luxury, the shine fades when engineers realize the sacrifices it extracts. The volatility of the industry undercuts many of the avenues through which engineers construct meaning in their lives – their families, their cultural traditions, and their communities. Simultaneously, the American public is beginning to recognize that the sense of well-being formerly provided by our communities has come unraveled.
To meet this challenge, it is necessary to recognize labor flexibilization as a root cause in the weakened state of our communities. As such, it is imperative to shore up worker protections, and to rebuild and protect what has been degrading over time. We must redefine meaningful work and the conditions that are essential to the “good life”. And we must insist on the extension of these rights and protections to all workers, not only the middle class. If we make the effort, our present moment of “polycrisis” may enable us to harness the general malaise of the contemporary era, recover our need for community, and reimagine how to make work more fulfilling for workers at all levels of society.
 The term “fab” is industry slang for “fabrication facilities”.
 To protect the identity of the company, I have withheld its name and location.
 The semiconductor industry was ahead of its time in this regard, due to the need to manage transnational networks. Even before the pandemic, teams of engineers collaborated long-distance via conference calls and chat messaging services.
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Sarah Appelhans earned her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University at Albany (SUNY). Her dissertation research, Flexible Lives on Engineering’s Bleeding Edge: Gender, Migration and Belonging in Semiconductor Manufacturing, investigates the intersections of gender, race/ethnicity, and immigration status among semiconductor engineers. She is an Assistant Professor in the Engineering Studies Program at Lafayette College.
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