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Who’s Driving? A Response to 4Front Atlantic’s GPS for Atlantic Canada

29 May

Co-authored with Brian Foster

 

What we are all looking for…is the readymade, competent man [sic]; the man whom some one else has trained. It is only when we fully realize that our duty, as well as our opportunity, lies in systematically cooperating to train and to make this competent man, instead of in hunting for a man whom some one else has trained, that we shall be on the road to national efficiency.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (1911)

 Once again, the topic of Nova Scotia’s economic future is front-and-centre in the provincial discourse [‘An Economic GPS for Atlantic Canada,’ Opinions, May 25th, 2013]. From the Ivany Commission to the 4Front Atlantic conference, to the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index, representatives of business, government and higher education have put their heads together to come up with solutions to our long-lived economic challenges: an ageing population, high youth outmigration (and now unemployment), and slow economic growth compared to the booming economies in some other provinces. They have assumed a common set of goals: we need to attract and retain young workers, especially “recent graduates”; we have to figure out ways to see older people as valuable resources, not liabilities; we have to be “competitive”, “innovative” and “more productive”.

They have arrived, separately, at some common proposals: we need a “friendlier” business environment and streamlining in government processes; we need to figure out ways to get people to start businesses, root them here, and hire Nova Scotians; we need a skilled and willing workforce.

But there’s one thing they’re a little reluctant to say, despite the mounting evidence that it must be said because it is key to our present economic problem: employers here, as elsewhere, either are not willing to invest in worker training to the extent that it is needed, or do not see workplace training as a priority.

And so, among the 4Front conference’s key recommendations is “an educational environment where universities and colleges play a lead role in developing the talent…Canada needs.” In other words, they are doing what businesses have been doing since F.W. Taylor’s time: looking for the “ready-made” worker, trained in a university or college or, better yet, someone else’s business, rather than committing to hire smart, promising young talent and cough up the funds to mold them into the employees they need. As a recent article in MacLean’s [March 15th, 2013] put it, employers, in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, are “outsourcing their workplace training to colleges.”

F.W. Taylor cartoon

F.W. Taylor cartoon

The data we have on this matter is, unfortunately, quite sparse. We do know that Canadian businesses, overall, invest just 1.5% of their payroll in education and training – 50% less than what firms in the US spend. But the latest available provincial data from Statistics Canada is pre-recession. As the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index also reports, at that time, 40% of Nova Scotian workers aged 25-64 participated in some form of employer-supported work-related training (Access and Support to Education and Training Survey (ASETS)), which was  above the Canadian average of 36%. But looking deeper, Nova Scotia workers spent less time in such training – just 36 hours per year, compared to the still-low Canadian average of 49.

Beyond this, we know little about what has changed since the recession, who is getting trained – e.g., younger workers vs. older workers – and for what. Some insight can be gained from the Greater Halifax Partnership’s Halifax Index, released last week. The Index revealed that while the employment rate rose in Halifax in 2012, the vast majority of the job gains went to people aged 45 and older, and the employment rate among 15-24-year-olds actually fell. Qualitative evidence from Nova Scotia and other Canadian provinces, moreover, consistently shows that employers are especially risk-averse about training new (usually young) workers; businesses fear that they will train an employee only to have them leave or be “poached” by another company. Perhaps not coincidentally, much of the training offered by Canadian employers relates to things like workplace safety rather than basic job skills that could substantively increase productivity, spur innovation and build the skilled workforce our businesses say they need.

It’s time for Nova Scotia businesses to do more than simply push our education system to create the workers they so desperately want. They must commit, somewhere in their policy recommendations and economic plans, to make a serious investment in the province’s “human capital.” If they truly value training, and need it to fill the “skills gaps” we hear so much about, it’s time for them to do what they supposedly do best and put some skin in the game.

One benefit of getting older…

12 May

…is that you age your way out of the generational gaze. You know the one. The one that fixes on everything younger than 30 or 40, and can’t see anything but narcissism, entitlement, deviance and degrading values.

I wrote this blog many months back, and a much shorter and slightly different version of it was published over on the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Centre’s blog. What didn’t make it into that version was a lengthy critique of some of the empirical evidence that today’s young people are more narcissistic / less community-minded than previous so-called generations of young people. I’ve been spurred to publish the longer blog by a recent flurry of articles (are we seriously doing this again?beginning with Joel Stein’s TIME magazine piece, ‘The Me Me Me Generation’.

Many others have already taken on Stein’s argument – my favourite is entitled ‘Every Every Every Generation has been the Me Me Me Generation’ by Elspeth Reeve – but I figure this is a pretty good opportunity to dust off a draft and save it from the trash folder. I confess I haven’t even read Stein’s piece. It’s behind a paywall so that only rich old Boomers can access it. I’ll read it next time I go to an airport and pretend I’m really going to by a magazine at the newsstand.

*If you want more of this, I have a whole book for you! Check out Generation, Discourse and Social Change (2013). Hit me up for a free copy, or check it out of a university library if you just can’t wait for the paperback version.

Le Blog:

“They want more. They always want more… they just expect more… they’re gratitude-less. They’re not grateful… you can never satisfy [them]. You offer something up and it becomes an expectation. There’s a real sense of—well, an entitlement.”

That was 50-something Penny, speaking to me in a research interview two years ago, about “the younger generation”. She had some first-hand experience with them, working at a software company where there had recently been a bit of an influx of twenty-something hires. I had asked her if she noticed any age-related differences among the people she worked with. She didn’t hesitate for a moment.

A quick survey of recent media opinion pieces, and especially the comments section of online newspapers, suggests that Penny’s take on Generation Y is the hegemonic view of today’s twenty- and early thirty-somethings.

When it comes to work, this view generally paints Generation Y as lazy and non-committal, yet with an overblown sense of “entitlement” about salary, time off, and career progression.

As recent graduates, they’re said to bring a sense of “credential arrogance” to the workforce, as one of my interviewees put it, believing that their post-secondary degrees, and not their performance, will confer seniority on them.

This same sense of entitlement is said to rear its ugly head in school, first, as exemplified by the student who claims to “deserve” a certain mark, regardless of effort.

In politics, too, Generation Y appears to be going about things all wrong. Low youth voter turnout numbers have led many pundits and ordinary people to declare this generation “apathetic” or “politically disengaged.”

These characterizations go hand-in-hand with the argument that previous generations had it worse. It usually goes something like this, mined from the actual comments section of a Huffington Post article:

“It was much harder in my day. We had to deal with things your lazy generation can’t imagine. We had the Cold War going on and were worried about nuclear weapons exploding any day. You read about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Well I lived through it and you have no idea how it feels to have a bunch of nuclear weapons aimed at you. You have to go to University to get a job big deal. You didn’t have World War 2 going on like my father. He was dodging bullets and mortars in Europe while you worry about Black Friday or what the latest gizmo is. I lived through 18% mortgage rates. People declaring bankruptcy by the thousands. Families leaving the keys in the house because of banks foreclosing. Every generation has its own unique set of circumstances. Quit complaining and grow up.”

“Who had it tougher? Those who fought and died to give you the rights you take for granted, and worked to create an economy you feel a false entitlement to enter from the top.”

“The Boomers, of which I am one, worked for things and over the years upgraded to get where they wanted to be. What I see now are Gen Xs wanting/having everything right from the get-go. They want BIG houses, brand new cars (and 2 or 3 of them), big boats, designer clothes, etc. My parents didn’t buy anything they couldn’t pay cash for, my generation were willing to go in the hole; however, not to the depths that you see now. Quite frankly, I couldn’t sleep at night with that kind of debt load. These days you don’t see a high-schooler driving ‘a beater’ like we did.”

It doesn’t take much to recognize these rants for what they are: the old “uphill, barefoot, both ways to school” adage, just in a different form.

Yet, they continue to crop up everywhere, their authors apparently unaware of their unoriginality.

When Generation Y speaks back to these rants, as they often do, they point to stagnating wages, the expansion of non-permanent employment, abominable student debt, soaring house prices, the difficulties of making a dual-earner relationship work, post-secondary institutions that are bursting at the seams, the inflation of post-secondary degrees, and the overall uncertainty of our economies and labour markets, even in once-reliable sectors.

They are compelled to justify their expenses – ‘you need a smart phone in this day and age’; ‘I hardly spend anything at all on clothes and entertainment’ – and tally up their commitments, working hours, sacrifices and delayed gratification.

They explain the reality of temp work and unpaid internships, and the worry that these stations are not passing-points on the way to good careers, but whirlpools on a vast sea of crap jobs and unpredictable markets.

Even when they protest in the streets, as hundreds of thousands of young people did last year in Quebec’s “Maple Spring”, they’re told they should wait for an election, go to the polls, and change the world through democratic suffrage. When they say the choices on the ballot don’t reflect their values, they’re told to “start their own political party.” When they don’t, the prophecy is fulfilled: Millennials are apathetic and lazy.

The saddest part of these conversations, over and above the question of who’s right or wrong, is that they always descend into petty fights over who had it worse, and who is more virtuous for having survived and possibly thrived in their particular historical moment.

Also sad, for a sociologist who studies generations carefully and critically, is how the concept of generation becomes a tool for individualistic division and competition instead of an indicator of the importance of social, political economic, and historical context. Generation becomes a catch-all for every apparent (and usually anecdotal) schism, a way of setting “people your age” apart from “people my age”, without much attention at all to the contexts that make generation more than just age.

The “Science” of Generations?

Of course, not every apparently “generational” difference is purely anecdotal. Some of them are backed up by the scientific authority that comes along with “factor analysis” and “p values” and “regression models”.

Yet there’s a problem with the scientific “evidence” of generational difference: it’s wildly divergent. Over the last two decades, numerous quantitative studies have attempted to measure and compare the attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviours and personality traits of different generations. Some have found that the younger generation – X or Y, depending on the study date – is more environmentally and socially conscious, less materialistic, more community-minded and less cynical than the Boomers, while others have found the opposite.

Psychologist Jean Twenge has tried to settle the dispute once and for all, drawing on annual surveys of high school students and university entrants from the 1960s to the present.[1] Looking specifically at the surveys’ sections on “life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation”, Twenge and her colleagues attempted to compare levels of “community feeling”, “narcissism”, “empathy” and “civic engagement”, as well as the presence of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic life goals” across three generations: The Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y.

Their study concludes that today’s generation of young people is more “narcissistic” and less “empathetic” than previous generations, as evidenced in “lower levels of community feeling,”  “less intrinsic and more extrinsic life goals, less concern for others, and lower civic engagement.”[2]

Twenge has trumpeted these findings loudly and confidently in popular media. She has even produced a whole book called Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. On its cover, a bare, tattooed midriff sits atop low-slung jeans, the physical manifestation of entitled narcissism, every parent’s – and a whole culture’s – worst fear.

But peppered throughout her otherwise authoritative writings are quiet warnings about the validity of her research findings. She admits, for example, that they must be “interpreted with caution” because many of them refer only to young people who enroll in a 4-year college degree. Moreover, the study design cannot differentiate between time period effects and generational effects – in other words, there is no way to tell whether the young Boomers surveyed in the 1960s actually held on to the same values as they aged. When one considers the dismantling of the welfare state in the US, Canada and the UK over the lifetimes of most so-called Boomers – the individualistic legacies of the popular Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher governments – one might doubt the staying power of their communitarian, youthful values.

Another limitation is that the survey questions on which Twenge’s study is based were designed in, and mostly unchanged since, the 1960s. The meanings of many of the central concepts in those surveys – concepts like community, environment, society, and politics – are by no means static. They are historically contingent, shifting with our knowledge of the world around us, our reference points, and our ways of knowing, all of which have been transformed through processes of globalization, de-industrialization, and technological developments. The idea that we can measure “levels” of things like “community feeling” is questionable, especially when the very concept of community itself is socially constructed, or as Benedict Anderson put it, “imagined,” and imagined differently in different times and places.

But there is an additional problem. Twenge’s study does what nearly every other quantitative study (and many qualitative studies) of generation does: it begins from the unproven – and perhaps unprovable – assumption that generations are discrete, definitive categories of people, whose boundaries can be determined in advance based on birthdate alone.

It thus commits what we might call an a priori fallacy: it starts with an answer, not a question. It starts, confidently and un-reflexively, with the boxes – Boomers in Box Number 1, Generation X in Box 2, Generation Y in Box 3, and then sets out to organize data into these pre-fabricated containers.

The thing is, the meaning of generation can’t be taken for granted. As I explored in my own research, its meaning has stumped philosophers, theologians, psychologists, sociologists and historians for centuries. Its general definition is an unanswered philosophical question; the boundary of each individual generation is an under-studied empirical question.

Too often, studies of generational differences simply adopt the categorizations of previous studies, or they draw arbitrary boundaries around nice, round numbers and evenly spaced categories. One has to wonder what would happen if the boundaries were bumped five or six years in either direction. Would the generational differences be the muted, amplified, or the same?

This is all the more problematic because when generation is based on arbitrary ranges of birthdates alone, it is reduced to just age. The idea that political economic and historical context matters is there, to some extent – and in some cases more than others[3] – but it is generally pushed to the background.

Generational differences are rendered instead as psychological, individualistic differences, as though they develop spontaneously and instantaneously, at the level of the individual. It’s as if a switch is flipped every fifteen years: this year it’s the narcissism switch; fifteen years ago it was the slacker switch. The opportunity for cultural critique – and a sociological imagination – is wasted too often. Instead, the research simply feeds the hungry fires of intergenerational conflict.

This, apparently, is the state of the “science” of generations: divergent, deductive, and built on questionable foundations. If we take seriously the criticisms and contributions of the reflexive turn – the emphasis on examining and assessing our ontological and epistemological assumptions rather than leaving them unquestioned, calling into question the “objectivity” and “neutrality” of science – we might argue that it is hardly science at all.[4]

At the very least, we must question how social scientific research on generations shapes social life, informs people’s understandings of the world around them, and rationalizes the judgments we cast upon one another. Is it possible that in reifying the boundaries between this and that generation, social scientists have helped cultivate feelings of enmity between older and younger people?

In any case, the more we iterate generation as an axis along which people should align, the more we legitimate it and rationalize it as a category and an order. We might be okay with that, but we cannot be oblivious to it.

In my qualitative research on generations and work, I drew on interviews with 52 Canadians of various ages to argue that attempts to define or characterize different generations – whether as part of a scientific project or a conversation around the water cooler – constitute a politics of representation.[5]

The basic premise of the politics of representation is that by representing things with language, we imbue those things with meaning. Because language is always ongoing in various forms of discourse, and because it never comes from a single source or develops in isolation in a single context, the meanings of words (like the things they represent) are never “fixed” and rarely “unitary.”

Therefore, there is always the possibility that meanings will be contested, and that certain interests will be served more by some meanings than by others. Hugh Mehan summarizes the implications of this possibility as follows, pointing out the political dimension of contestation and alerting us to the fact that language and meaning are objects and tools of power:

Language has power. The language we use in public political discourse and the way we talk about events and people in everyday life makes a difference in the way we think and the way we act about them. This sentiment is captured by Tom Stoppard in his play, The Reality: ‘If you can get the right words in the right order, you can nudge the world a little’  [ . . . ] Words have constitutive power: they make meaning of things. And when we make meaning, the world is changed as a consequence.[6]

In my research, I found that the battle to make meaning of generation was waged on all sides. The key battleground I explored was work, and it was there that I found the language of social science unleashed in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Generation Y’s orientation toward the task of making a living – whether they eschewed comfortable jobs for creative ones they found fulfilling, or found themselves unwittingly hopping between short-term contracts – was framed as “entitlement”, the connections between their working lives and the major political economic shifts of the last forty years downplayed. The Boomers’ commitment to work, meanwhile, was framed as a function of “materialism” and “workaholism” rather than a legacy of Protestantism or a sense of loyalty to The Company.

The sense-making strategies of ordinary people and the “science” of generations seem to feed back on each other, offering both sources the authority they need to continue doing what they do. It is in the wake of this feedback loop that the management science of generations – the “generations management” literature and consulting boom – continues to flourish, supplying coworkers, managers, recruiters and analysts with the easy conceptual categories they can use to get a handle on diverse workplaces without having to deal with the idiosyncracies and contingencies – the mess – of real life.

Moreover, the uneven scrutiny hefted on Generation Y begs us to ask about whose interests are at stake in defining them as petulant, selfish brats who don’t know how the real world works.

Indeed, the more interesting social scientific questions, to my mind, revolve not around the qualities of different generations, but rather around the construction of generation as a category, and the related attempts to criticize or reform the generational subjectivities we find unpalatable – the narcissism, the individualism, the apathy. In looking at who is trying to describe a generation and how, we can learn a lot about power, and this, as Bent Flyvbjerg puts it, is how social science can truly matter.[7]


[1] Twenge, J., Campbell, K. and Freeman, E. (2012). ‘Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966 –2009’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102(5): 1045–1062.

[2] Twenge, ‘Generational Differences’, p. 1060.

[3] James Cote’s work, for example, pays a little more attention to political economic context, although it still makes sweeping generalizations about “young people.”

[4] See, for example, Bourdieu, P. (2004) The Science of Science and Reflexivity. London, UK: Polity Press.

[5] My book (Generation, Discourse and Social Change) is forthcoming with Routledge in early 2013.

[6] Mehan, H. (1997) “The discourse of the illegal immigration debate: a case study in the politics of representation.” Discourse & Society 8(2):249–270.

[7] Flyvbjerg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

‘Hipster’ is not a real job. Neither is not having a job.

12 Oct

Last week, the CCPA released a report (authored by yours truly) about youth un- and underemployment in Canada. It showed that, while youth unemployment in Canada is not insubstantial – 14.1% in 2011, up from 12.9% in 2006 – it’s still “low” compared to other OECD countries. In Greece, for example, the rate was 44.4% in 2011, and has been pinned more recently at 55%.  In Spain, it’s 54%; in Italy, 35%.

There’s no doubt that 1 in 7 young people unemployed is better than 1 in 2 or 1 in 3.

But it’s not great. As I argued in the paper, and as Carol Goar underscores in the Toronto Star today, the rates of tenuous employment (i.e., part-time, temporary) are on the rise among young people in Canada, and at a faster pace than among older workers.

The full paper is available here, but in brief, it shows that the rate of temporary, contract and term employment among workers under 30 has nearly doubled, from 6.9% in 1997 to 11.6% in 2011. For workers aged 30 and over, the rise has been less dramatic – from 4.0% to 5.7%.

When you break these figures down further, you see that education level plays a role. While young workers without a PSE degree were more likely to be unemployed or not in the labour force (likely because they’re still in school), those who do have a post-secondary degree are more likely to in short-term employment: 1 in 5 were working non-permanent jobs in 2011 – and half of them were part-timers.

This matters because non-permanent and part-time jobs tend to be lower paid (by virtue of working fewer hours and because the pay scales are usually different than full-time, permanent ones) and they usually lack access to employer-provided benefits. Moreover, spells in nonstandard work or unemployment have been shown to have long-lasting effects. (See chapter 7 in this book; or check out this article – sorry about the paywall.)

It also matters on a macro-economic scale, above and beyond the immediate earnings and well-being of individuals, because people who don’t make much money don’t spend much money, and then we’re all screwed.

Yet, as Carol Goar notes, there has yet to be any action on youth unemployment. I even got an email from a policy researcher with one of the federal political parties saying he was glad to see my report and distressed by the lack of action on the problem. Save for a few snarky and ill-advised ads by the BC government – which, as Andrew Langille over at Youth and Work notes, cost them over $600,000 – everyone thinks youth unemployment is a problem, but no one’s moving on it.

Zi-Ann Lum/The Huffington Post B.C.

Like Goar, I’m wondering why.

I have some theories. First, we think of youth itself as temporary. Even when it’s expanding or contracting or taking too long or going away too quickly, it’s still a phase of life we all grow out of.

Authorities of all stripes use this ‘fact’ when it’s convenient – like when they assure us young workers will ‘recover’ because they’re ‘resilient’, or when they simply wait out popular movements in the hopes that they’ll die when their instigators grow up – and ignore it just as often, when it’s time for a moral panic about whatever young people are wearing, watching, listening to or engaging in.

In the case of youth unemployment, we’re seeing a paradoxical (but quite logical, from a governmentality perspective) mix of abject terror over the threat of idle youth in Europe on the one hand, and the patronizing downplaying of rising youth unemployment here at home.  Those competing mentalities might have something to do with the all-out paralysis when it comes to policy development and action.

The federal government – aside from the NDP, whose benches are lined with twenty-somethings, and few of them ‘legacy’ politicians – are also just plain out of touch with young peoples’ lives, issues, potentials, concerns, challenges and desires. In their world, Justin Trudeau is the touchstone for youth (at forty!!!), and “youth” is synonymous with “student.”

The latter point might be another reason why nobody’s doing anything about youth unemployment: the base youth unemployment rate doesn’t distinguish between high school students, college and university students, graduate students and non-students – so we don’t know how worried we should be. Are these young workers looking for employment? Are they actually available to work? Are they still living with their parents? Do they have families to support? The easy way out of all of these hard questions is to assume that the vast majority are students whose primary interest isn’t paid employment anyway.

More generally, the political economic climate of our time doesn’t allow for government-driven solutions. We’re tinkering with tiny taxation issues and putting up stimulus spending billboards waiting for the invisible hand to swoop down and… I don’t know… tickle Canadian businesses until they give in and invest more of their lazy money in our economy?

Yet the answer might not be to copy the solutions of the past. Reviving the Keynesian welfare state is nearly as ghoulish as channeling Reagan and Thatcher. The Keynesian model of yesterday was good for yesterday’s worker: a white man, supporting a family. It depended on a supply of low-wage labour from the Global South. In short, it worked for a world that was wildly out of balance, but it needed that imbalance to work.

That’s not to say there’s no room for Keynesian ideas in the days ahead, but that nostalgia for the exclusionary welfare state of days gone by is a form of economic hipsterism worth of a few ill-advised ads of its own.

We are one of the most highly educated countries in the world, and our economy isn’t totally in the shitter yet. Why can’t we figure out ways to put young people to work in decent, well-paid, productive jobs? If the problem of the next decade is skilled labour shortages – although this is debatable – why aren’t we attracting young people to the right programs, with free tuition or generous bursaries, to fill them? Why aren’t we investing in apprenticeship programs to employ young workers while training them in the skills the economy needs, like the OECD recommends? Why aren’t we killing two birds with one stone by putting young people to work on pressing public issues – why, for example, can’t we employ young workers on projects that address the need for better public transit in many major urban centres, cleaning lakes and rivers under threat of destruction, re-settling rural communities that are now in decline, or developing and implementing a national childcare strategy?

The circumstances were different in Greece, Spain and Italy before half of their young workers became unemployed. But they didn’t get there overnight. If Canada waits too long, its young people aren’t just going to grow up. They’re going to grow angry.

“Gotta Spend Money to Make Money”… or is it “Make Money to Save Money?”

2 Aug

 “Young people want to retire early and spend, too”.

That’s the main finding of a survey commissioned by the Bank of Montreal, released today in newspapers across the country.

The coverage of the survey report is problematic on its own. For instance, although 1000 Canadians aged 18 and over were surveyed, the focus in media reports has been on the 40% of the youngest respondents, who said they intend to retire by age 60. Moreover, although 73% of those young people said they’ve “tucked some money away” for retirement, the headlines point to the 27% who haven’t.

But let’s ignore, like everyone else has, the relative weight of those numbers. Let’s shove aside the majority who are planning financially for retirement and the 60% who think they’ll retire after age 60, and let’s focus on why young people are irresponsible with their money, naïve, materialistic and lazy, shall we?

Let’s ask why there is this apparent delusion on the part of SO MANY young people who, at the beginning of their working lives, are already dreaming of Freedom 59. I propose we seriously consider the findings of another survey, released last month by the Pew Centre.

That study found that in most countries, a minority or only slight majority of people believe that “hard work leads to material success.” Those who do have faith in the rewards of work effort are more likely to support capitalism, while those whose faith is wavering are more likely to believe that people would be better off under some alternative form of political economic organization. Subsequent commenters have interpreted these findings as signs of “declining” faith, despite having no historical or longitudinal data to back up that claim, and in the spirit of totally ignoring data in order to proceed with argument, I’m going to accept the “decline” narrative and add it to the “irresponsible youth” narrative.

But I also want to add one more study, which does seem to have a bit more reverence for its empirical findings. Specifically, NPR released data on “how America spends its money,” and it showed how people in the bottom, middle and upper income brackets divide their money to cover standard expenses. Perhaps surprisingly to people who want to think that poor people are idiots with no self-control, the figures show that compared to wealthier folks, people in the lowest income brackets spend a greater proportion of their income on housing, food (at home, not at restaurants – not even the fast food restaurants you might assume all poor people go to; don’t get your Stephen Harper Brand knickers in a knot), transportation, health care and utilities. They spend virtually nothing on education, and very little on retirement. In fact, among the poorest families, only 2.6% of income gets put toward retirement savings. Among the richest, it’s 15.9%.

Taking all of these surveys together, I want to make two more tenuous arguments.

First, if young people aren’t saving money, maybe it’s because they don’t have it. If our data look anything like the US data in the NPR report, young people’s money is going toward housing, transportation (and to tuition, which is rising yearly in most provinces) and ramen noodles for home consumption.

I can support this argument with an anecdote for now. Last year, as a highly educated 28-year-old research fellow in Toronto, I spent 45% of my income on rent. I spent another 12% on food at home, and 8% on tuition. I spent about 10% on flights to and from Nova Scotia to visit family. I spent 3% on a monthly cell phone bill and about 1.5% on internet. I spent about 3% on clothing and shoes, and about 8% on medical and dental, because I had no coverage. I blew the rest on moving everything we owned to Nova Scotia to start a new job.

I spent virtually nothing on daily transportation because I couldn’t. I didn’t put away anything for retirement because there was nothing left. And I don’t even have any debt – so I can only imagine what it’s like for the many people who paid for their education on credit, on the hope that it would pay off in the end.

Second, if young people want to retire early, it’s because the rewards of hard work are increasingly difficult to see. We’re told we’re not owed a pension, benefits, bonuses, vacation, or even raises at the level of inflation. When we ask why, when we cry foul, we’re called entitled, spoiled, or just idealistic.

But we’ve seen what the protestant work ethic – the belief in hard work as a reward in itself – does to the body, the mind, families and communities. At least, we’ve seen what it does in an economic system where most people are required to sell their labour for pay, and relinquish any of the profits or surplus value their work makes possible. I’ve seen pelvises crushed by coal cars in the mines of Spring Hill, heard of fathers and grandfathers swept from their fishing boats and washed away in the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve witnessed ageing workers, with 20 years at a company, watch their yearly raises shrink to below inflation in the name of ‘tough economic times,’ while their employers continue to increase their share of company revenues. Why on earth would I have any sense of obligation to a system like that? Why would anyone?

The real shame of the retirement savings data is that it’s pitched as a warning to young people to be more sensible, to come to terms with the realities of the day, to look out for themselves because no one else will. What we should be doing is getting angry, coming together, and fighting for a social, economic and political system that helps (nay, forces) us to take care of one another.

How to Eliminate Tuition Fees (and do it right)

9 Jun

Quebec student group CLASSE has come forward with an offer of what it would take to end their almost four-month strike: the elimination of tuition fees by 2016. The plan is based on taxing banks, starting at 0.14 per cent per cent this year, and rising to 0.7 per cent over the next four.

According to CLASSE’s calculations, the tax would net $400M per year – enough to fund a tuition-fee-free post-secondary system.

Of course, this proposal has media outlets like The Sun and the National Post ‘setting their hair on fire’, as my friend Erika Shaker would say. Already, we have the usual erudite reactions from internet trolls and their startling real-life manifestations. Over the next few days, we will surely (?) begin to see more semi-researched arguments that come within ten feet of a fact.

Despite what we’ve heard and will continue to hear from the knotted-knickers crowd, eliminating tuition fees is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It’s radical, yes – radical is context-dependent – but it’s not unachievable. It’s utopian, and idealist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also practical and pragmatic. These things sometimes, indeed often, go together. We urge our children and each other, ‘follow your dreams,’ ‘be the change you want to see in the world,’ and to grab life by whatever of its body parts are within grasp. But when it comes to collective dreams, we’re a little more reserved.

Here I want to propose that eliminating tuition fees is a viable option, and it’s worth going for – but it isn’t, in itself, a panacea. It has to be combined with other policy changes and considerations in order for it to truly contribute to the leveling aims universal higher education is meant to achieve.

First, on the viable option bit. There are now twenty OECD countries that charge zero or only nominal tuition fees to citizens. Some of these countries, like Greece, are struggling – but so is the US, and so is Canada, and so is the UK, and many other places that have begun to eat themselves alive now that neoliberal economic policies have failed to deliver on their promises of booming, invisible-hand-driven markets. None of these places got where they are by offering too much to their citizens.

Other countries that fund university through taxes boast thriving economies: Argentina and Sri Lanka, for example, were among the top ten fastest growing economies in 2011. The GDP of Sweden, Mauritius, Morocco, Kenya and Peru grew faster than the world average that year, while Brazil, Malta, Germany and Finland beat Canada, the UK and the US handily. There may not be a hard and fast relationship between how university is funded and a country’s economic performance, but that just adds to the argument for the elimination of tuition fees.

In Canada, we have numerous ways to collectivize and subsidize the costs for post-secondary education for everyone. CLASSE’s proposal is interesting because it places the burden on banks (perhaps they watched this tiny person’s presentation) – you know, the same banks whose representatives circle like vultures, in the subway stations students tend to pass through on their commutes, or in the Student Union Buildings of nearly every major university, offering free swag to any broke chump who’ll sign on the dotted line (a practice which, for the record, should be banned).

If taxing the banks is rejected in our wealth-sycophant public forum – which it will be, because banks will, oh, I don’t know, pick up and move operations, restrict spending, raise interest rates and user fees, or whatever else we allow major economic players to get away with in the name of ‘fairness’ and the free market – there are alternative ways to fund an education system.

Some of the countries listed earlier just take university funding out of their considerable tax coffers. In Canada, we’d have to raise taxes (or redirect money away from the F-35s and other pet projects of the overgrown schoolboys we call Conservative Government Ministers) to be able to earmark the necessary funds for a publicly-funded university system. But not by much: for example, a 2011 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that if every family in Ontario paid a tax of $170 per year, we could fund the university education of every aspirant student in the province.

But while the publicly-funded university is economically viable, it does present some real problems for those of us who see it as a democratizing, leveling social good. For one, ‘free’ university (and it isn’t free, it’s collectivized, and there’s a difference, and we KNOW THIS ALREADY, GEORGE JONAS!) tends to benefit mainly the middle class who would find some way to afford it anyway. There are cultural, historical reasons for the demographic makeup of universities, and eliminating fees won’t open the floodgates to poor, rural, or minority students in any huge or immediate way. There need to be policies in place to ensure that students who are underrepresented in universities and colleges are able to take advantage of tuition-free post-secondary education, and we need to ensure that, to the extent possible, our pedagogical instruments, course content and cultures are welcoming to diverse students, and not just the best and the brightest middle class students from other countries.

Related to this is the downside of funding universities through individual income taxes: if it is predominantly the middle and upper classes who benefit from tuition-free post-secondary education, and yet the tax is applied universally in an only somewhat progressive tax scheme, the funding model amounts to redistributing income from the lowest economic quintiles to the highest – and we already have enough of that going on, thank-you-very-much. A shift in tax policy could mitigate these effects, but so could the CLASSE model.

The latter is especially compelling because it sidesteps the problem of some of ‘us’ subsidizing the ‘others’ individually – something we seem to be really uncomfortable with, judging by our (apparent, unproven) contempt for taxes.

But it doesn’t evade another, somewhat justified point of resistance to the elimination of tuition fees: that of the loafers who will surely take advantage of a tuition-free spot in a university classroom without putting in the work necessary to succeed, without learning anything, without ever giving society a return on its investment. On the one hand, this critique smacks of similar ones made of public healthcare – that ‘we’ shouldn’t have to subsidize the medical treatment of people who eat junk, smoke cigarettes, drink too much alcohol, take risks in their leisure pursuits, etc. It’s similar also to the anti-union rhetoric that comes from grudging union members and former members – that seniority systems allow people with no work ethic to languish at the top while hardworking folks hit the seniority ceiling early. To these arguments, I usually say ‘one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.’

But here, I’ll admit that, particularly in a society where there is so much pressure for high-school students to apply to and enroll in university, there’s a real risk of deadweight. It’s already happening in cases where well-intentioned parents support their kids in university when the kids aren’t ready, or don’t want to go, or don’t know why they’re there. It’s definitely an issue with varsity athletes on sports scholarships – I can’t tell you how often I hear of the student who “has to” maintain a certain average (i.e., as a professor, you “have to” give them this average) in order to keep his or her athletic scholarship.

Thus, there’s a good argument to be made for students needing to maintain a certain GPA, and maybe even some volunteer work or short placements in industries with labour shortages (or, for some folks, military service, which ain’t my thing), and even incentives to move to or stay in rural or Northern areas which struggle to attract recent graduates. In other words, there’s room to make students ‘pay’ for their tuition-free education in other ways – ways which may actually strengthen the social fabric and the economy rather than burdening students with exorbitant debt and stifling their much-needed spending for years to come.

Finally, the case for eliminating tuition fees often revolves around the university specifically, leaving out technical institutions, vocational schools, community colleges. This is especially a problem given the present mismatch between skilled labour supply and demand in Canada. In short, from the problematic but entrenched view of universities as strictly job-training apparatuses and not civic institutions that produce thoughtful, critical subjects, there are too many people enrolled in and graduating from them. This is evident, first, in unemployment rates of recent grads. In 2011, 7.4% of people aged 30 and under with a university undergraduate degree were unemployed, compared to just 3.8% of those over thirty with the same level of education. Only 48.1% of 30-and-unders with university degrees had full-time, permanent jobs, compared to 57% of older university graduates (and this includes the downward pull of retirement-age people in that category). For 30-and-unders with post-graduate degrees (PhD and professional schools, for example), the unemployment rate was 6%, only 41.5% had full-time, permanent gigs, a whopping 18% were working full-time, temporary or contract jobs (a 6% increase since 2001), and a further 16% had part-time jobs (8% of them short-term contracts). The picture for older post-graduate degree-holders was better, with only 4% unemployed, 56% in full-time, permanent jobs, 6% in full-time temporary jobs, and 7% in part-time jobs. (All of these figures are unpublished data from the 2011 LFS, author’s calculations.)

Meanwhile, we know we have skilled labour shortages in many areas. Anecdotal reports from employers suggest we need more professional truck drivers, more mining and geological professionals, and more engineering, science and technology graduates. Last year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce predicted shortfalls of “163,000 in construction, 130,000 in oil and gas, 60,000 in nursing, 37,000 in trucking, 22,000 in the hotel industry and 10,000 in the steel trades” over the next decade.

While Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, Margaret Wente, would prefer to simply chastise people who opt for English degrees when there are skills shortages in other areas, what we need is a national strategy that connects people with jobs while they are still at the point of choosing what to do with their lives, career-wise. We need incentives, not disincentives. We don’t need weird tweaks to EI that push out-of-work lobster fishermen to try their hands at telemarketing. We need to think long-term, not only about the spots that need filled, but the people who are going to need spots.

We can’t remove the financial barriers to university without also removing barriers, and perhaps increasing incentives, to the programs that will produce graduates with the skills we need for a booming economy. These aims can also foster a fairer, more leveling economy. But it can’t be a piecemeal approach.

Proposals for eliminating tuition aren’t simply idealistic or utopian; they are the definition of pragmatic and utilitarian. The latter terms are often used to ferry in austerity measures and justify harsh cuts to social programs – they’re often abused, particularly in the liberal media and conservative political rhetoric. But their philosophical meaning revolves around the good, and the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So let’s be pragmatic. Let’s be utilitarian. Let’s eliminate tuition fees, but let’s do it right.

Special thanks to Rollen Lee, Andrew Riddles and David Tough for the Facebook conversation that spurred and helped this post.

The Real Culture of Dependency: In Defense of Atlantic Canada

20 May

This post is co-authored with Brian Foster

“Is the EI system making it more attractive to not work?”

That’s the (attempt at) thought-provoking (or fire-stoking) title of a recent National Post piece, written in the aftermath of Jim Flaherty’s intellectually lazy and socially irresponsible public musings on the psychological, voluntaristic reasons for Canada’s unemployment rate.

Flaherty, recalling his own years spent toiling as a referee in the wretched, undervalued and invisible Canadian hockey industry, posited that “the only bad job is not having a job”. Most unemployment in Canada, viewed through Flaherty’s diamond-encrusted monocle, is the result of jobless people being too choosy about which jobs they’ll do.

The rest of it, apparently, is the result of laziness.

That’s what the National Post’s Sarah Boesveld oh-so-subtly suggests in her article, based on a series of confessional interviews with people-who-have-friends-who-might-have-at-one-time-spent-a-few-extra-months-on-EI.

“The government makes it so easy,” one of them said. It’s “free money.”

Several other articles take aim specifically at workers in Atlantic Canada, many of whom are seasonally employed and draw on EI the rest of the year. As Jane Taber puts it in the Globe and Mail, in Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, “EI is less an insurance program than an income maintenance plan.” For moral high horsers like Boesveld and former Maritimer Brian Lee Crowley, and for the Harper Government, this is infuriating.

The key word there, however, is moral. There is no practical, economic or social reason to be up in arms over people using EI when there are plenty of bad jobs to go around. The only reason these writers and pundits and politicians have their knickers in a knot is because the refusal to sell one’s labour for minimum wage (or worse) is an affront to their middle-class Tory sensibilities, and therefore a threat to the middle-class Tory privileges around which this moral order is built.

Indeed, the practical, economic and social objections – and some of the moral ones, too – melt away when we give ourselves a much-needed refresher on EI – what it is, where it comes from, what it’s for, and when (if ever) we need to worry about it.

For starters, EI ain’t welfare. It is entirely funded by workers and their employers. Think of it like a savings account you contribute to the whole time you’re working. (We’ll return to the employer contributions later.)

You draw on it only if and when you lose your job, through no fault of your own. And even then, you need to have worked between 420 and 700 hours over the previous year.

That’s why well under 40% of people who become unemployed are actually able to claim EI.

Second, don’t kid yourself, Jane Taber. EI isn’t really about “income maintenance” for workers, no matter how clever that sounds as a rhetorical device.

EI is the only thing that allows seasonal industries to survive in our day and age. EI lets employers off the hook for three or six months of the year, so that when they’re not making money, they’re not paying anyone.

There are two alternatives to seasonal workers going on EI: employers could continue to pay them all year round, or they could resort to subsistence living in the off-months. If either of those scenarios happened, the economic consequences would be disastrous. When people have money, they spend it. That’s what we need. That’s why we’re in a flap over Canadians shopping in the U.S. That’s why the fifties were so prosperous for so many people and we’re in so much debt trying to maintain old consumer standards with lower incomes today. That’s why wage stagnation is followed by economic recession. Why that’s so difficult a lesson to learn is beyond us.

If middle-class people want to eat lobster in the summer, bite into Annapolis Valley apples in the fall, haul the kids to PEI for vacation in June, golf at Dundee Resort in July, listen to fiddle music and get plastered on George Street or the Liquor Dome in August, and then forget about everything East of Montreal for the rest of the year, they’re going to have to damned well deal with the consequences, and one of the main consequences is EI. In that sense, EI is for you, Ontario and Alberta. Is your PEI Dirt Shirt feeling a little tight?

The response to this line of thought is predictable. “There’s a third alternative to EI,” the privileged silver spooners and wealthy-person sycophants will say: those out-of-workers should move somewhere else when the seasonal employment dries up. To that, we say, are you serious? While your version of “summering” in one place and “wintering” in another is a good way to stay tanned all year round, the one you propose for the wage labourers that prop up your privilege is far from sunny. It breaks up families and it destroys communities.

Workers do respond to shifting economic structures and dying industries, but they do so over multiple generations. That’s about the only thing that keeps the social fabric together.

In Brian Lee Crowley’s world, there are plenty of off-season jobs to go around in the Maritimes – like in the lucrative food services industry – where a grizzled, out-of-work South Shore lobster fisherman is as welcome as a buxom university student, and looks as good in short-shorts, right?

In his world, as in the world described by the CFIB’s Dan Kelly, it’s psychological and moral defect that makes people pass over minimum-wage jobs in favour of pocketing the money they, and their employers, “saved up” in their joint account during the on-season. Why don’t they “open their horizons,” as Jason Kenney puts it? Because they don’t value work, that’s why. They’re voluntarily unemployed.

In this rendering of the way the world works, EI should be reserved only for the imaginary people who lose their jobs in the context of full-employment – the last people without jobs in the entire country, as if the job market was a game of musical chairs.

Let’s, for a moment, imagine a much stricter EI system. Would it really make it more attractive to work a job, any job? If history tells us anything, the answer is no.

The US learned that lesson only after its bloody, violent Civil War. When that war was over, slaves and many wage workers liberated from the chains of forced labour simply dropped out of the market. They subsistence farmed. They developed economic markets not controllable by the state. They no longer produced the surplus value that kept industrial society going. It took the coercive power of the state stepping in, on behalf of the old landed class, to force people into industrial relationships. They did it by holding up wage labour as the ultimate freedom, and casting those who refused to participate as illiberal anarchists or Marxists.

That worked for a time. But the veneer of opportunity quickly wore thin. It became clear to workers that the system worked mainly for the industrial elite. They grew skeptical of the state’s attempts to depict this industrialist-centered market as the natural and inevitable outcome of all markets.

It took years of injustice, but people slowly began see the force of the state, mandating people to work in particular ways and forcing their production through laws and police, as the sign of a crumbling moral economic order. They realized things could be done differently. And they started to walk away.

Faced with the prospect of mass uprisings, un-nationalized economies, local government systems, and (worst of all) labourers dropping out of the economy, industrialists (labour and capital) and their governments across the Western world turned to social welfare as a way of keeping people morally and financially invested in a system where participation was exploitative by design.

Booming industries with subservient workers: that’s what the industrialists and governments want, and it’s what today’s EI-phobes want too. Yet their genteel fears of EI-abusers come from the same musty little place as fears of a coercive state. The very folks who want the state reduced to something that can be drowned in a bathtub depend on the state’s power. They need it to force people into subservient positions, even as they trumpet the value of individual choice and voluntarism.

That’s a hypocritical culture of dependency that makes our Maritime blood boil.

Why work?

11 May

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

[…]

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues’ (2011)

Why work?

It’s a stupid question, isn’t it? If nobody worked, we’d all die. Even in the simplest imaginable society – a deserted island, where there was no need for shelter or any other type of infrastructure – we’d still need nourishment, and that takes work. In our complex, advanced capitalist, post-industrial world, there’s no getting around it either.

But ‘why work so hard?’ – that’s a reasonable question. ‘Why work in this way and not that way?’ – also worth asking. And there are many different answers to each of these questions, depending on who you ask, and how hard you press for answers.

I found this out doing interviews for my dissertation, but you can find it too if you just ask your mom, your dad, your neighbour, the guy who sells you coffee, the woman whose kid you take care of. Or try asking yourself.

You will find that some people just ‘fall into’ particular jobs, and subsequently particular ways of doing those jobs. Sometimes their work just keeps ramping up, taking up more time and energy and concentration, until it’s just about all they have. Sometimes the rewards – psychological, material, even spiritual – are enough to make a work-dominated life appealing, and maybe justifiably so. In some cases, a person’s relationship to work has all the markings of an addiction.

When you ask these people why they work so hard, they can offer personal, idiosyncratic reasons – ‘I derive satisfaction from my role in the organization’ – but they can also draw on dominant discourses about the virtue of work and, conversely, the moral bankruptcy of idleness. Doing a job – and doing it to excess – is framed in this discourse as one of the only obligations anyone really has to the rest of society. Not doing it is irresponsible, deplorable even.

Then there are people who consciously resist paid work’s tendency to colonize other corners of life. I’ve written before on how these folks appear to confront their desire for resistance as a choice between two options: doing a job – any job – just until their basic needs are met, or finding a job that is so inherently satisfying it doesn’t feel like work. The goal, to paraphrase Andre Gorz, is either to liberate oneself from work, by not doing it, or keeping it confined to short hours and ‘easy’ tasks, or to liberate oneself in work, by finding some life-affirming vocation that just happens to come with a paycheque. The only thing to be avoided is imprisonment in a shitty job.

These were the people, in my interviews, who drank their coffee on the front porch during rush hour, watching, with a mixture of pity, empathy, and a touch of disdain, as the rest of the world inched toward its offices in the same traffic, day in and day out.

The rest of the world, for these people, was trapped: in cars, in cubicles, in careers, and in the unconscious and unquestioned pursuit of money and material things.

Sure, they admitted, many people threw themselves into jobs without any of the money or material rewards in mind. But such people were the exception, and we didn’t need to worry about them. The ‘liberated’ interviewees worried instead about friends and family members who had simply gotten caught in a current of unrewarding and in certain respects unnecessary labour, and were going to drift along that way until sweet, sacred retirement. Floating along like that, they were going to miss ‘what’s really important’.

***

The two extremes – embracing work unquestioningly and resisting it consciously – are ideal types, straw men who don’t exist in such starkness in real life. And there are plenty of different and equally nuanced points on the spectrum between them.

But in talking to younger people especially, it’s clear that these extremes are poles that exert considerable pull on those who are trying to figure out what to ‘be’. Many of my youngest interviewees (mainly the ones who didn’t have children yet – not to be confused with being financially stable) articulated two conflicting desires: first, the desire for a job they could happily work until they were sore, like the orchard in the song that opens this post, and second, the desire for paid work that stayed put, between the hours of 9 and 5, leaving them plenty of ‘off the clock’ time.

‘Conflicting’ might not be the right word – really these options are just different. The people struggling with them were either willing to take whichever came first or easiest, or they set their sights on one or the other and just went for it, because both led to the same end: some kind of liberation. What they wouldn’t do – couldn’t do – was settle for imprisonment in paid work.

***

Perhaps the foregoing seems trivial at a time when so many people are unemployed, or underemployed, struggling just to get by. Waxing about the ideal relationship to work at a time like this is sort of indulgent, isn’t it? And being picky about jobs – what a privilege!

But I want to argue that how we think about the purpose of work has everything to do with the unemployment rate, the economic system, the relative power of workers and employers, what and how we produce and consume, and the (re)distribution of wealth and other resources. Any change in the way we, individually and culturally, imagine the place of work in life, can have severe and noticeable political and economic ramifications.

To write such concerns off as impertinent is to confuse ‘the way things are’ with ‘the way things will be’, or worse, to confuse the ‘is’ with the ‘ought’. It is to assume that there are stable, ahistorical and therefore inarguable answers to the questions ‘why work so hard?’ and ‘why work in this way?’ I propose that there aren’t.

It turns out I’m not alone. Almost, though.

I’ve written before about Bertrand Russell’s observation about ‘modern’ life – namely, that its ‘methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all’ and yet ‘we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others.’ This ‘insane’ arrangement seems to flow out of some equally insane insistence we have that only full-time workers should be able to afford to live full lives.

Historian James Livingston has been pounding away at a similar point for several years now. His slogan, which he’s been encouraging ‘the Left’ to adopt, is ‘FUCK WORK.’ He argues that the Left ‘is still too deeply, even emotionally attached to the idea and the agenda of productive labor,’ such that when it tries to reach for social change – to minimize inequity, to ‘level’ society – it focuses obsessively on ‘correcting the relation between effort and reward, between work and income.’ It always looks back, as Richard Sennett does in The Craftsman, or Bellah et. al. do in Habits of the Heart, for a time when work was soul-nourishing stuff you did with your hands. It wants everyone to have a calling.

When I first started researching for my thesis, I wanted that too. The whole thing was going to be organized around the idea of the calling. My assumption, going in, was that bettering the world of work meant linking every person up with the work they were meant to do.

But then one of my advisors issued a critique that was as devastating as it was short:

Not everyone wants a calling. Some people just want a job.

Some people, espousing what Max Weber called the ‘Traditional Economic Ethic’, view work as ‘necessary drudgery,’ ‘to be avoided as soon as customary and constant economic needs [are] met.’ And they’re fine with that. They don’t thirst for a calling, nor do they view work as ‘indispensable to life.’ If they could get away with not working, or working less, they would. And that’s okay.

This is what Livingston’s getting at, too. For these people, ‘true freedom lies beyond the realm of necessity, in the aftermath of hard labor—off the clock, as it were, and after hours.’ They know, as Livingston puts it, that

‘We don’t need work to fashion our genuine selves, to produce character and authenticity.  There’s not enough real work to go around, anyway, so we might as well get on with a discussion of why the relation between the production of value and the receipt of income can never again be understood as a transparently cause-effect relation. We might as well get on with a discussion of how to detach one from the other—income from work—and entertain, accordingly, the practical applications of the criterion of need, “from each according to her abilities, to each according to his needs.”  We’re already involved in this discussion when we debate so-called transfer payments and entitlements.’

***

From the stories I’ve heard in interviews and casual conversations, as well as from poetry, lyrics and prose written by people in my general age group, I’ve developed the rather unscientific sense that more people are toying with the question, ‘Why work?’ and maybe even adopting the slogan, ‘FUCK WORK.’

It conflicts with everything we were told, growing up, at least those of us in middle-class households where our customary needs were always met (and handily).

We were told that to ‘be’ something one had to choose a vocation, or be chosen by one on the basis of talent or fate or divine intervention. We were told we could ‘be’ anything we wanted, so long as it involved work.

Even now that we’re older, every introductory conversation begins with ‘so what do you do?’, and by ‘do’, we always mean ‘for a living.’

But in my personal orbit at least, there are signs that this is changing.

For instance, today I discovered the word ‘funemployment.’ It’s a term that emphasizes the joy of being free of work, but it’s ironic; everyone knows that unemployment usually means just barely squeaking by, and there’s nothing fun about that. (It has also been used, notably by the Globe & Mail, to chastise young people who are apparently out hamming it up instead of working a job – as though it’s entirely voluntary.)

Yet funemployment is arguably a good term, a necessary term, for a loose ‘generation’ of people who are more likely than ever to work short-term contracts with spells of unemployment in between. It allows us to laugh at ourselves when we should probably be distressed.

It could also be one tiny step toward acknowledging that unemployment is a chronic problem, one that doesn’t just happen to people selectively, when they mess up and lose their way. Like a disease, it’s not very discriminating. It isn’t, however, inevitable – only in our present system, where ‘the market’ ostensibly decides who works and who doesn’t, what we produce and consume,  and how many productive bodies are needed in order to meet our basic needs and our luxuries.

And really, let’s not kid ourselves – there is no apolitical market, chugging along on its own steam. As an exasperated Bertold Brecht put it, ‘the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions.’

In this way, the market, and the jobs it offers us (or doesn’t), is our market. It can be within our control. Just as we can be ‘functioning cogs in some great machine’, we can throw ourselves on the gears.

Heck, more of us have nothing but time. What are we waiting for?

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