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Now, to let the money start rolling in…

14 Mar

You’ve likely seen at least one list, published in a newspaper’s ‘business’ section, of tips for how to manage that unruly influx of “young punks” wreaking havoc on workplaces around the world: the millennials (or Generation Y). Over at the CCPA’s Behind the Numbers blog, I’ve combined some old material with some newer numbers in a different format to produce my own list of 6 tips for managing millennials. Tip 1? Pay them more than subsistence wages. Read the full list here.

Waging or Resisting Unwinnable Wars: A Response to Donald Gutstein

13 Feb

Across Canada and every other place where austerity has become a household term, the idea of generational conflict has come out of retirement (pun intended). In Canada, intergenerational issues and tensions garnered a bit of attention during the Occupy encampments, and resurfaced again in the wake of the Prime Minister’s nonchalant announcement, in Davos, that the age of eligibility for OAS might be raised two years.

Both of these events churned up public commentary and debate, most of it (according to my unscientific count of newspaper columns) positioning people in my parents’ “generation” as the villains who’d spent themselves into debt and mortgaged my “generation’s” future. (I’m going to cut it out with the danger quotes now – but want to register my resistance of the term “generation” when what we mean, if we’re being precise, is cohort).

In “Stoking the False War Between Generations”, his recent piece in Vancouver’s The Tyee, Donald Gutstein argues that this master narrative of selfish, indulgent Boomers and their “screwed” progeny is the unfortunate product of a bait-and-switch spurred on, if not crafted, by “corporate and political elites.” What they’ve done, writes Gutstein, is “shifted the blame” for the economic downturn from themselves to the Baby Boomers.

For the most part, I think Gutstein’s point is a valid one. And that’s not easy to say, as someone who really appreciates the work of Paul Kershaw, whom Gutstein criticizes at length. Thus I do not have a critique so much as an extension – a point that I think his short article failed to adequately drive home. (This is particularly evident in some of the comments.)

The crux of his argument is this:

“When deregulation and greed led to the market collapse of 2008 and forced governments to spend massively to prevent total economic meltdown, corporate and political elites set out to shift the blame for the near collapse from the actions of the one percent — who caused the collapse — to the Boomer generation, which had nothing to do with it.

For Gutstein, the real culprit is neoliberalism, as a political ideology and, I would add, a governmentality. I agree with him there. I especially agree, and I’m most alarmed, by the way the generational conflict rhetoric has been taken up by those who would like a smaller, more neoliberal state, and used to defend cuts to social spending and taxation.

But I don’t think one can argue that the people who came of voting, working and procreating age just as the juggernaut of neoliberal policy started rolling in earnest have “nothing to do” with the fact that it kept on rolling, and picked up speed.

To uphold that sort of argument, one has to dispense with the core sociological notion that people “contribute, however minutely, to the shaping of [their] society and to the course of its history, even as [they are] made by society and by its historical push and shove.”[1] In plain, one has to deny individuals and the collectivities they form, consciously and on purpose, or unconsciously and by demographic and socio-historical accident, any agency over the direction of political affairs, or the content of social norms and cultural values.

Now, I’m not being a very good social scientist here. I don’t have the data to back any of this up. But I’d like to armchair theorize that the “neo-liberal plan to privatize education”, along with the other “neo-liberal goals” Gutstein lists in his article, enjoy a great deal of support from the over-50 crowd, particularly when such goals are linked, in political promises, to lowering personal taxes. (I also accept that if nothing changes, these same goals and plans will get support from people my age, too, as their incomes rise [if that actually happens], their personal orbits shrink, and caring for the well-being of others comes to mean tending to children’s needs).

Yet Gutstein maintains his point: “These ills have little to do with the alleged activity or neglect of Boomers,” he writes. Instead, we should blame the new “agenda”, originating in the “right wing thought collective” of the 1970s, to “crush union power, cut regulation and taxation (at least for the rich), reduce government’s role in the economy, cut social spending, impose free-trade deals, offshore good-paying industrial jobs, and offload costs onto the environment.”

But in throwing light on the “neo-liberal agenda”, and pushing the “Boomers” out of the frame, Gutstein fails to give adequate attention to one of neoliberalism’s defining features – and the most dangerous thing about it.

Specifically, neoliberal governmentality works because it convinces us, no matter how old or young we are, that we want it – that a smaller state is in our best interests, that downloading social costs to individuals is virtuous, that the economy is society, and that the taxpayer is the citizen.

Neoliberalism achieves this – its dominance, politically and socially – because it involves the erasure or denial of alternatives. It tells us that there are external, non-negotiable economic and market forces, the effects of which our governments (and our corporations, too) must simply manage, as they are (they tell us) powerless to control; Margaret Thatcher’s famous “there is no alternative” is, perhaps, neoliberal strategy in a nutshell.

Over the last thirty years, this rationalization has come to be accepted as common sense. That’s how public assets get sold off with public support. It’s how “austerity” goes unchallenged even by people who are about to see their benefits slashed and their job security disappear.

For a while, the inversion of society and economy – the submission to the “invisible hand” – was working for enough people in the short term, so they went along with it. And I would argue that these same people are still going along with it, because it is what they know. To them, it’s logic. It’s rational. It’s common sense. And it is all of these things because the people who built their lives in the heyday of neoliberal governance are neoliberal subjects.

The power of neoliberalism is that, unlike other arrangements of power and domination (like authoritarianism, feudalism, etc.), it depends and thrives on the creation of subjects who internalize its goals and essentially govern themselves. Neoliberal subjects do not self-identify as submitting to a dominant power, because they’re invested in the image of themselves as “morally responsible” for their successes and failures, and as best-served by “rational choice and cost-benefit calculations grounded on market-based principles to the exclusion of all other ethical values and social interests.”

It appeals to people because, unlike past ideologies that socialized people to accept “their lot” for the good of the whole, neoliberal ideology says “forget the whole”; it says “you can do better – but it’s up to you.” Neither part is true, but just as we like to believe that a regimen of shakes and cleanses will whittle our abdomens, we like to believe that each of us is in sole command of our own socio-economic standing.

There is reason to suspect that the people who feel most like these atomistic, self-responsible rational-choosers are those whose subjectivities, as working, voting, spending, procreating adults, were forged when the flames of neoliberalism burned brightest. (We do know that younger people today are more supportive of social democratic values and socialism.) This suspicion, along with the need to combat the myths older people believe about people my age, is what leads me to argue that older generations should shoulder some of the blame for the economic shitstorm in which my friends and I are looking for work – not to mention the political doldrums so many in my cohort feel disenfranchised from.

Neoliberal governance certainly depends on the very obfuscation of power that Gutstein warns of – the “anonymity of the corporate state” characteristic of “inverted totalitarianism” – and this is exactly what makes the blame game simultaneously so enticing, dangerous and difficult. We can, and should, continue to blame the corporate and political elites who have the power but claim not to. But we don’t live in a world where reclaiming or redirecting power is as simple (albeit gruesome) as lopping the head off of the king. We have no king, and although that appears to us as a realization of freedom, it finds expression in our felt and possibly actual impotence.

How do you blame an ideology? Who do you hold responsible, when the dominant mode of seeing and managing society depends on the diffusion of responsibility? How do you prod people to let go of the common sense that appeared to deliver them the comforts they now can’t live without? And how do you make sure their subjectivities aren’t passed down, with their (shrinking) inheritances, to their kids? These are the questions we must ask, if we want to steer ourselves toward a more just, more equal, more self-consciously interdependent society.


[1] C.W. Mills, 2000. The Sociological Imagination, 6.

State of the Union: Part 1 of 2

7 Feb

Unions, in Canada and the world over, are facing perhaps their biggest battle of the last eighty-odd years. Not only are they fighting to protect workers against governments and employers (and government employers) armed with the powerful language of crisis and austerity, they are also doing it with very little sympathy or support from people who are not (consciously) involved in any meaningful way in their struggle. Indeed, unions have been downright demonized lately.

Seeing this, Trish Hennessy has called 2012 the year of “the unionbot”: the rise to dominance of a science-fictiony rendering of The Union as “an immutable, greedy beast” that “invades Planet Earth”. I think she’s hit the nail on the head, but in my view, there is also something more mythical (almost biblical) in the narrative emerging around both public and private-sector unions, most notably in recent months. I started writing this post thinking I would get us out from under the myths, break down the ideological barriers to sympathy and support, and write us all onto the same page.

I’m sorry to report that I’ve simply transported us from one impasse to another. Today’s post will culminate in that dead-end, but there will be a part 2 that asks how we can move beyond it.

The myths

Three myths seem to dominate the narrative that has us, today, at a ‘fateful moment’ of sorts, for unions. The first myth – one that governments and corporations alike have been using to their sole advantage, and that a disappointing number of ordinary Canadians have been quick to accept – is that these are just plain tough economic times, and public and private employers alike have no other choice but to cut labour costs to stay afloat.

Not only does this simply fall flat in the case of Caterpillar – which was turning record profits when it decided to close the London EMD plant – it’s also misleading in general. The “tough” part of the times we live in isn’t that money is just disappearing; it’s that money is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands. There are people and corporations, albeit in shrinking numbers, who are actually doing very well right now, in part because they’ve absorbed the money the rest of us have passively hemorrhaged over the last several decades.

From Snippits and Snappits - http://bit.ly/wIQLCtAnd it’s not that they’re no longer reinvesting their money out of concern about the global economy. It’s that they’re investing elsewhere, in places where they can exploit workers by paying them far less while still turning out the same number of products. (“Exploit,” by the way, is absolutely not hyperbole in this case. It is a highly accurate way of describing what goes on when capital “flies” to other countries.)

A second myth relates to the kinds of workers who are, right now, on the front lines of a battle we will all face, sooner or later, if things don’t change. Specifically, every third internet commenter reminds others that these “unskilled” labourers, working for London’s EMD plant or Halifax’s Metro Transit, are making far more than minimum wage doing work that requires no skill or education. (From industrial sociology, we learn that the more appropriate term for this type of work in most cases is “de-skilled”: recognizing that work that was once done by hand or at least wasn’t fully mechanized is now helped along by machines to such an extent that the individual worker is, in some respects, dispensable, through no fault of their own.)

Even notwithstanding the last point, a day on a shop floor or in a public transit driver’s seat will confirm that “de-skilled” or “unskilled” jobs actually require a great deal of skill. Such jobs might not necessitate a post-secondary degree (so that’s what we’re really talking about here, isn’t it?), but then again neither do a lot of jobs we consider “skilled,” some of which pay exorbitantly. One need look no further than professional sports, modeling, or sales, or any of the work-your-way-up jobs in finance and business for those kinds of apparent breaches of the “low skill = low pay” law. But even in the absence of comparison, the work done in manufacturing, public works and resource extraction is hard on the body, it’s dangerous, it’s thankless, it can be loud and stinky and uncomfortable, the hours are shit, it’s dull and mind-numbing, and – oh yes, that’s right – it’s incredibly undervalued and stigmatized. And it should make us sick to think that our sympathy and support is reserved for people whose jobs are somehow more noble, because they “require” post-secondary education.

Beyond the myths, there are also a handful of tired old tropes that do nothing but obfuscate the real issues at the heart of the labour negotiations causing so much consternation in every corner. The only one I want to address here is that of the lazy union worker whose job protections make him impossible to fire. I’m sure we all know this guy. I’m not disputing his existence. But I am going to point out that he’s just one guy in most workplaces – ONE GUY – whose specter somehow eclipses the hundreds of other employees who can thank the union for their wages, their weekends, their lunchbreaks, their health plan, and their protection against arbitrary firing.

We know people are creative. They can be deceptive. They game systems. They are capable of finding ways to get what they want with minimal effort, and that is never going to change. But despite what the rational-choice economists might say, we are not all system-gamers all the time, nor is there much risk of all of us being that way, so long as we’re treated fairly and get some minimal intrinsic rewards from the job. The impossible-to-fire-unionized-worker, even if he shows up in every single workplace, is not a reason to dispense with unions altogether, just as the crooked cop is no reason to dismantle all police forces. Both provide protections we would be screwed without.

The morality

With those three barriers-to-an-actual-conversation out of the way, where do we find ourselves? The answer – you’ve been warned – is at an impasse.

In conversations with people I know, and in reading what people I don’t know have written or said publicly, only a tiny bit of nuance needs to be erased in order to see that there are, for all intents and purposes, two “sides”, with competing perspectives on the last several months’ labour struggles. On one side, there is the view that unions are “pricing themselves out of a job”, often combined with the argument that workers, particularly in the industries and jobs we devalue (i.e., every one but our own, it seems) should be thankful simply to have a job. The rationale is usually that there are other people who make less who would be willing and able to do a unionized job for minimum wage without any benefits. Therefore, the unionized worker is exhorted to concede whatever benefits s/he has. It’s a line of reasoning that comes from the same cold, shriveled place that incubates the basest viewpoints, like Toronto Councillor Doug Ford’s, that “nobody should have a job for life.”

Oddly, this set of views finds as much purchase with people who’ve benefited, either directly from public and private pensions, or indirectly from the early union struggles that gave us labour laws and time off, as it does with people who actually would do a job for minimum wage. From both groups, the message is that no worker should get, well, anything, beyond the privilege of going to a job. They might object to that, but ask them what workers do deserve, and that’s the answer you’ll get, once they strip away all of the benefits that appear to them to be superfluous.

As The Coast’s Tim Bousquet put it in a recent article about the Halifax bus drivers’ strike, this line of critique is music to employers’ ears, and it doesn’t do us any good either:

“These are such anti-labour times that an objection is often raised that amounts to: ‘I don’t get to pick my schedule, why should bus drivers get to pick theirs?’ But saying all benefits others receive that I don’t receive are unreasonable benefits is a loser’s game, ultimately leading to fewer benefits for everyone. That’s the sentiment management is appealing to.”

A slightly less common approach to playing the same “loser’s game” is to make unions out to be greedy and only in it for themselves. Particularly in the case of striking public workers, the argument is made that the union is insensitive to the inconvenienced public – indifferent to “the common good.” That point, I respectfully submit, is bull. It’s bull for so many reasons, not least of which being the fact that the greatest mass prosperity is only possible with a strong middle class. Again, Bousquet puts it better than I ever could, writing:

“our baser instincts [tell us] the path to personal prosperity is to impoverish everyone else. Quite the contrary is true: a securely employed, well-paid working class is the surest path to societal-wide prosperity. We must do better by each other, and better by our public employees.”

So while this is a moral position I’m taking here – that we should be inclined to raise each other up for our common humanity rather than knock each other down for our different vocations – it’s also factually in our better interests to protect middle class jobs; protecting middle class jobs, whether you like it or not, means extending middle class benefits and salaries to jobs you think you could do with your eyes closed.

The common ground

The foregoing litany of disagreements might suggest a complete absence of common ground, but I want to argue that there is widespread agreement about one significant thing. People who believe a unionized worker deserves job protections and wages far above subsistence level, and people who don’t, all accept that the profit motive is an inevitable part of free market capitalism, and that it rarely works in favour of the employee. Really, no matter what one’s take is on unions, one must accept that, in the economy as we know it, private companies are inevitably going to want to earn more money, and public employers are going to want to trim costs, which means they’ll both want to boost productivity. Their preferred method of doing so is to reduce the cost of labour.

We also agree that in a global economy, if it’s possible for capital to move somewhere where the labour costs are lower, with very few exceptions it will do it without blinking. As Jim Stanford puts it in his brilliant Economics for Everyone, “private employers do not hire workers as a public service. They employ people to produce something and sell it for a profit.” That’s what Caterpillar did and is doing, and it is not going to change.

Finally, we even agree that the individual worker is powerless when it comes to protecting his or her interests (making a living, having a vocation, avoiding the psychological and financial insecurity of precarious work) against those who own and control the workplace. Unionism is a direct response to this fact; as a movement, it recognizes that workers are only a force to be reckoned with collectively. I can’t think of a name for the other kind of response – the one that stems from thinking that unions have “outlived their use.” Passive acceptance, maybe? Exceptionalism? No matter what you call it, as David Macaray pointed out here, it’s a “dangerous” way of reacting to the logic of capitalism. As he writes,

“Without worker collectives and worker solidarity, the whole shebang would quickly devolve into “every man for himself,” which is precisely what corporations dream about when they go to sleep at night.”

From Snippits and Snappits: http://bit.ly/wIQLCt

This, I argue, is our final impasse: the schism between those who believe in solidarity across the working class (the 85% of Canadians who have to work for an employer to make a living) and those for whom self-defense is the noblest modus vivendi in an increasingly hostile world. The question for “us”, in the former group, is whether we can win enough of “them “over to turn the tide. The risk is that we’ll have to hit bottom before they believe it’s there.

Delaying Retirement: What Does it Mean for Younger Workers?

1 Feb

Since the announcement that his government was considering raising the eligibility age for Old Age Security (OAS), Stephen Harper has backed off slightly, assuring the public that such reforms are years away. Nevertheless, media and experts of all kinds have fired into gear, speculating on the possible motivations for OAS reform, and exploring its potential implications.

One question that hasn’t received much attention – yet – is the impact of a higher eligibility age on the job prospects and economic well-being of younger workers just entering the labour force. In other words, we’ve yet to see much discussion of the intergenerational consequences and character of OAS and related social security reforms.

Read more over here, at the CCPA’s Behind The Numbers blog.

The “Other” Side of the Story

8 Jan

I was going to write a different blog post when, in the course of perusing the latest Labour Force Survey data on Statistics Canada’s website (as you do, on a Sunday morning), I came across a table that stopped me in my tracks.

This is a table the LFS releases with each cycle, showing the reasons part-time workers (comprising one-fifth of all workers in our labour force) give for working part-time.

Look closely.

You’ll notice that each of the “voluntary” reasons for part-time work is spelled out in the table. The most common reason for working part-time – largely due to the fact that the under-24 age group pulls the figure up – is going to school (29%). Close by, at 26%, is personal preference – which is why the majority (55%) of the plus-44 crowd of part-timers (that’s right, 45 or 85, you’re in the same category now) work part-time hours. But in between those two high-ranking answers is the seemingly benign “Other” category, with 27%.

What are these “Other” reasons? Oh, just business conditions and unable to find full-time work.

Fully 27% of part-time workers of all ages would work full-time if they could. More strikingly, over one-third of prime-age part-timers – the 25-44 group – work part-time involuntarily, because they can’t find full-time work or because of “business conditions”, which sounds to me like another way of saying full-time work is impossible to find in their occupational field.

And yet the story, as Stats Can tells it in the news release that usually accompanies the LFS, is about a slight rise in employment and unemployment. That’s the first line of the release agency bureaucrats sent to major media outlets, and that’s what we heard on the radio, read in the newspaper and saw on TV news: a slight bump in employment, accompanied by a higher unemployment rate due to an increase in labour force participation; a bit of good news, a bit of bad news, adding up to mainly worrisome news that Canada’s economic recovery could be “running out of steam.”

What about the thousands of people who are, by virtue of not being able to find a job that will employ them for more than 30 hours a week, under-employed? Why isn’t that part of the story?

The official release from Stats Can does give a nod to the part-time numbers, but only to note that “an increase of 43,000 in part-time work was partially offset by a decline of 26,000 in full-time employment.”

Involuntary part-time work has been rather high for years now. Older data compiled by the Canadian Council on Social Development shows that it increased markedly from 1976 (11%) to 1994 (35%), following the business cycle to some extent, but also increasing independent of economic recessions, recoveries and booms. However, recent OECD data – which appear to be the best source of comparison I have at my disposal right now – suggest that the percentage of part-timers who would prefer to work full-time has increased dramatically over the last five years, from 21% in 2007 to 27% in 2011.

If we mined deeper, I bet we’d find that most involuntary part-timers are women (as has historically been the case), that there are interesting and meaningful differences between smaller age groups, separating the 20-24 crowd from the 15-19 crowd, and the 25-34 crowd from the 35-43 crowd.

These are significant figures, and they’re too important to be relegated to the nondescript “Other” category.

Unless…

THERE IS SOMETHING STATISTICS CANADA DOESN’T WANT US TO KNOW.

We’ve Created a Monster: Entrepreneurs of Self

8 Dec

When I first started researching generations and work, I set up Google Alerts for two sets of keywords: ‘Generation gap’ and ‘Young workers’. At first, most of the media alerts for the generation gap came from the Sports pages – apparently this is a phrase that people who talk about baseball use with regularity. Most of the ‘young workers’ alerts, on the other hand, came from English-language Chinese newspapers, and for a while there was a very interesting narrative developing there around young workers’ rights, unions and the manufacturing sector in China. That’s for another blog post.

Lately, likely because Occupy has thrust generations and youth right into the gears of the news production machine, both alerts have been dominated by stories from the US and Britain. Moreover, most of the stories I receive now come from the business section of online newspapers. Today, I got one such alert about a story on Huffington Post entitled “Survey Says: Young Workers Like Their Jobs, But Not Enough To Stay.”

In the opening paragraphs, the story reports that “nearly half (46 percent) of employees aged 16 to 24, and 40 percent of those aged 25 to 34, are ‘seriously considering’ leaving their employers”, even though the vast majority are happy, like their employer and would recommend their employer to others.

The HR firm that produced these findings explains this apparent paradox by noting:

“younger workers have grown up in a shifting world where employees no longer stay with the same company all their lives, so they perceive there is a lot of opportunities for them, despite today’s economic challenges. Globalization is also a factor, with younger workers more open to the idea of moving to other countries to work.”

I’d like to point out three reasons why this explanation misses the mark.

First, the finding that almost half of the 16-24-year-olds intend to leave their employer should be obvious. When I was 16 and working at a building supplies store (what’s up, Kent?!), I certainly didn’t plan to stay there. Even though it paid me reasonably well, rewarded me with gizmos when the company met its targets, provided whatever retail training I was interested in, threw a pretty rad Christmas party and offered me the chance to date mysterious older teenagers when I had failed to do so at my high school, I knew I was there for pocket money while I was in high school and that was it. Although many of my coworkers made it their life-long career and took pride in it, from the moment I put on those ill-fitting uniform khakis, I was “seriously considering” leaving. Even when I was 24 (and stilllll in university) I was working a job I knew I would leave.

Winnipeg Business District in 1939 - Canada. Dept. of Mines and Resources / Library and Archives Canada / PA-021196

Second, based on my research and experience speaking to other 20-somethings, I can assure the study’s authors that people my age are not under the impression that we live in a world of boundless opportunities. We’re aware that the job market is crowded and that it takes a lot of strategic maneuvering and stick-to-it-iveness to stand out. Many of the older people I’ve interviewed, on the other hand, do believe that all of us can be anything we want and are therefore puzzled when we flounder.

Third, while we may possess a certain collective psychological tendency to see and eventually approach our careers as fields of experimentation, constant mobility and impermanence, we didn’t just dream this up on our own. In the time it took us to go through formal schooling and get out into the “real world”, the real world changed. The proportion of jobs that are part-time, contract, self-employed or temporary has increased dramatically, and young people are the most likely to work them.

Moreover, at the same time, we’re increasingly exhorted from every angle to behave as what Michel Foucault called “entrepreneurs of self.” Managers and governments think and speak about us – all of us, not just young people – as “human capital”, not “labour”; accordingly, they also speak of “investing in” us, and we’ve grown up being told to “invest in ourselves” as well. Figuratively anyway, as “entrepreneurs of self”, our career becomes whatever we do for a living, and we are the central thread – not the company or the field or the profession. I’m not saying we all do this, or that people my age don’t sometimes get into a job and stick to it forever, but to do so goes against the grain, not only of what “our generation” supposedly “wants”, but also what nearly every dominant institution is telling and training us to do.

Business district of Toronto, 1919 - Canadian Post Card Co. / Library and Archives Canada / PA-

Want to retain young employees? The conventional wisdom is worth something – respect us, give us room to be creative, make our work task-based, not hours-based – but there are three more things that elevate the challenge above managers and individual employers but might actually be crucial:

  1. Make it so that not everyone feels the need to go to university – that is, recognize that so-called “unskilled” jobs take a lot of skill (and are often undesirable to the people who look down on them anyway) and pay them, accordingly, enough to live a good life on;
  2. Work with government to give young employees pensions, benefits and other incentives to stick around (i.e., the things previous generations had);
  3. Recognize that many of us have been brought up to anticipate dual-earner relationships, and will make them a priority – which means there needs to be flexibility and generosity from employers, helped by governments, around schedules and work locations, so that couples can flourish and raise future generations without necessarily having one person stay at home full-time.

Let us not be cooled

30 Nov

In recent weeks – perhaps spurred by a growing recognition of the unique challenges our present economic snafu poses to young workers – many of my friends have shared links to articles (like this one) listing the fields of study (or college majors) with the highest placement rates.

Aware of their deteriorating employment prospects, people my age in Canada (whom I wrote about here), the US and elsewhere are presented with three options, none of them ideal or mutually exclusive: we can stay whatever career course we’re on, hoping to rise above the rest and snag a coveted position, or we can be strategic in choosing a career, paying less attention to what we want to do for a living and what we’re good at, and more attention to who’ll be hiring. Most of us probably opt for a blend of those two approaches, finding something we can tolerate and do reasonably well in among the jobs with high (or not devastatingly low, at the very least) placement rates.

At the same time, consciously or not, we face another dilemma: do we accept the reality that underlies these limited choices, or do we raise hell about being put in such a position? These two options represent two sides in a debate that is simmering in the background of larger ones, over the Occupy protests, austerity measures, pension reforms, and student debt.

The side that resigns itself to “reality” tends to lay claim to practicality and wisdom, in contrast to youthful idealism and foolishness. Their message is that young people who find themselves with low or no employment prospects made poor initial career decisions and/or need to simply quit complaining, re-train and choose a new path.

Among those touting this message is the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente. In a recent column, Wente took on the issue of student and graduate unemployment using the “face reality” line described above. I propose that one critical reading of it illustrates why the self-described realists are far from practical or wise.

In her column from November 5th, Wente built on the vignettes of three struggling students or recent graduates of programs that aren’t business or engineering. By “built on,” I mean to say that she skewered them – for not realizing when they started their degrees that the economy was going to go tits up in every sector except oil and… well, whatever we’re calling the gambling that happens on Bay Street now.

Instead, these three people chose Sociology, Environmental Law, and International Human Rights – because, Wente explains, they wanted “self-fulfillment” (so weird!) and a “comfortable living” (who wants that?!) through “saving the planet” and – get this – “rescuing the poor.”

For Wente, what these fools didn’t realize is that “the demand” for people trained in the social sciences, law and human rights has “dried up.” And one of them even had the gall to have a couple of children without budgeting for their whole lives first.[1]

I want to argue here that Wente, aside from being characteristically insensitive and hateful, committed a generational fallacy. Judging from the high horse she wrote from in her column, Wente believes that back when she was young, she made the right choices.

I’ll tell her story facetiously and from her perspective, just for effect, showing how she deftly balanced the need to support herself with the human need for purposeful activity.

Dramatization of Wente's early years

First, Baby Wente managed to get herself born to some wealthy people – that’s Correct Choice number one – and in her infant wisdom she made sure it happened at The Right Time, thereby ensuring her entrance on the labour market when women’s opportunities were exploding and feminism won and everyone became equal.

Young Adult Wente went into the ever-practical field of English, which has always historically landed people jobs that pay excellent salaries, affording them and however many children they want to have allllllll of the splendors money can buy. It was a very practical choice – clearly the result of the sort of “critical thinking” Wente wishes the Sociologist Single Mom would have done.[2]

By now it should be clear that Wente’s “good choices” were only “good” by stroke of luck and favourable structural conditions, and only in hindsight can anyone recognize their goodness for sure. (If this isn’t the case, I want her crystal ball.)

The inherent unpredictability of the economy (at least, as Jim Stanford argues, the economy as we’ve allowed it to be organized, divorced from its simple basis in what we produce and consume, and how) means that humans choosing how to make a living do so with imperfect and partial information.

One need only look at how many seemingly practical and strategic plans were foiled by the dot-com bubble to confirm this point. And at present, even the jobs that we once thought we’d “always need” are increasingly difficult to get, if you’re a recent graduate. The fields of teaching, nursing and even law are, by some counts, facing an over-supply problem; moreover, there is a general consensus that my generation of twenty-somethings is caught up in a mismatch between education and jobs.

Higher education, in this context, has transformed into a double-edged sword, offering a hiding place for jobless individuals (not to mention jobless numbers), but also charging the most vulnerable when their earnings are lowest, all while portending to be the only path to a financially secure and occupationally successful future.

These conditions set the stage for what Erving Goffmann, writing in 1963, called “cooling the mark out” – the societal response to a situation where people are led to believe they are taking all of the steps necessary to obtain “the rights of a particular status”, only to find out that “they do not possess the qualification for the status” after all. (The full text is available here.) As Goffmann put it, using the metaphor of a con, societies (and I would say governments and elites in particular) are faced with a challenge:

[W]hat are the typical ways in which persons who find themselves in this difficult position can be cooled out; how can they be made to accept the great injury that has been done to their image of themselves, regroup their defenses, and carry on without raising a squawk?

Typically, apologists for the status quo – in this case, a serious misalignment between education and jobs, dire straits and little sympathy for those who can’t find work, and unfettered economic turmoil wreaking havoc on the early careers of young people – make every attempt to “cool the mark out”, inducing us to simply “adjust […] to an impossible situation.”

Young anti-conscription squawkers in 1939 - Montreal Gazette / Library and Archives Canada / PA-107910

This, I think, is what Wente would like us to do: adjust, regroup, and “carry on without raising a squawk.” In a reality where the future was certain to smooth out in a predictable fashion after our present, impossible wrinkle, such an approach might indeed be the most practical and efficacious one.

But in the real real world – the one us young squawkers have been in and of for a long time, thank-you-very-much – we understand that the very unpredictability of the economy is a human creation, albeit a creation of a very distinct echelon of humanity located on Wall Street and Bay Street and not an inherent quality of “the economy” as an ideal type. The “impossible situation” we confront is beyond our control, but only because we have allowed it to become that way.

The wisest, most realistic thing we can do is raise hell until the levers of power are put back in the hands of all of us, even if it means we’ll argue over which way to pull, and have to keep concentrations of power in check. It is also the most courageous and off-putting thing, for the Wentes of the world. But it is absolutely necessary.


[1] That one also later responded to Wente’s column, explaining (even though she really didn’t have to) that she was in a relationship with a man who was the primary earner, but she left him when he had an affair – evidently superfluous details to Wente.

[2] This doesn’t even touch on the numerous other twists of logic in the column – like how it wasn’t banks finding profit in predatory lending that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US – it was “socially progressive policy makers”. Or that all of our national financial woes could be traced to the wads of money being eaten up by public pensions, healthcare and public education, even though those unnecessary sociology-types tell us with their “statistics” and “government financial data” that the recession only set in once the Keynesian welfare state started coming undone.

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