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.

On Strike from Life as we Know it

17 May

The Quebec Government just announced a “special law” intended to bring an end to the 14-week student strike in that province. The law would postpone the rest of this semester and allow current students to finish it in August before starting school again in October.

The announcement came on the heels of a particularly contentious move by some strikers to “storm” Montreal classrooms in an attempt to disrupt classes where students had obtained a legal injunction to return to class. (The lesson might have been ‘Scabbing 101’.)

The questionable justness of this law aside, it reveals just how out of touch the Charest government is with the ‘nature’ of social movements as we know them. The messaging around the law, moreover, shows that governance, in Quebec as elsewhere, is so focused on the objective goal of hanging onto political power that it forgets how to work with subjective things like values.

The justification for the law – the public, official line anyway – is that “Access to education is a right. Nobody can pretend to defend access to education and then block the doors of a CEGEP or university.”

And yet, by raising tuition 82% over the next 7 years, the Charest government may as well be blocking the doors of every CEGEP or university in the province. Where the student strikers blocked access blindly and evenly, the government would filter it selectively, allowing those with the resources to enter freely and denying those without.

If education is a right, it can’t come with an exclusionary price tag. Charest can’t have it both ways.

This is what I mean by governance that forgets how to work with values. It’s clumsy. It contradicts itself. It survives on might, not right. It survives only because it has accumulated power by dispossessing others of it. But it only survives until the next election, and maybe, hopefully, not even that long.

Granted, Charest and the people surrounding and supporting him probably do not see the contradiction here, and would deny it if it was pointed out to them. The key word for them is “access”, and in the liberal and neoliberal view of things, access is something distributed evenly to every baby in utero. Right of access, therefore, is perfectly complementary to a user fee system.

Regardless of how the law is pitched and whether it’s eventually passed, it’s no panacea. It’s not going to “restore calm”, and if it does succeed in technically ending the strike (by removing that which the students are striking from), it can’t put an end to a social movement. That’s not how this stuff works.

As the students have pointed out for months, CLASSE and the movement around it are about far more than fighting a tuition hike. This thing is bigger than the strike. Students and supporters are no longer just refusing to go to class. They’re refusing to live as they’ve been accustomed to. They’re on strike from life as we know it.

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?

Making Sense of Youth Voter Apathy OR Why Youth Voter Apathy Makes Sense

27 Mar

I’m 28, and I’ve voted in every federal election since I was old enough to do so. Yet I understand why the majority of people my age didn’t, and won’t, and why those who turned voting age after me were less and less likely to cast a ballot. In fact, it’s easier to comprehend why most don’t vote than to explain why some do.

I am sure that some of the decline is because we’ve simply absorbed the apathy and disenchantment we likely grew up with at home. Where many older people in and outside the public eye have lamented the degradation of politics – harkening back to some golden age when politics was more civil, when kids knew the Prime Minister’s name – there was no golden age for us. Just as we stepped into our fast food uniforms long after the golden age of employment, we turned 18 long after the (possibly imaginary) golden age of politics.

We don’t remember the peak, or even some higher ground. We opened our eyes for the first time and all we saw was the ditch.

Public discourse about politics, in my lifetime, has always been rather negative. I learned as a teen that one shouldn’t bring up politics at a dinner party, because it’s divisive. When I was even younger, I learned by watching Air Farce and This Hour that politicians are stuffy old people we make fun of, not our representatives, nor even our oppressors. I didn’t conclude that politicians were good or bad; rather, I concluded that they’re irrelevant except when you need something to joke about. I still remember running around the schoolyard yelling “REFOOOOOOOOORM” after the old Air Farce Preston Manning skit.

But there’s something else, besides the negativity, in the way politics is constructed in public discourse. In the news media, and in TV and film, the political sphere is presented as an arena of warring tactics, competition, and winning, rather than a space where we hash out the values and ideals that define us. The parties are made out to look like teams one belongs to, once and for all, rather than vehicles for advancing different visions of what we, the people, want society to be.


Given that there’s no space for actual people in this rendering, except as spectators, it’s no wonder why turnout among the youngest Canadian voters (aged 18-25), just like overall voter turnout, has been on the decline since the 1970s. With each successive cohort of new voters less likely to vote than the one before it, and because young non-voters tend to become old non-voters, Canada now boasts the 16th lowest voter turnout out of 17th comparable countries.

For a brief moment during the last federal election, things looked promising, as ‘vote mobs’ sprang up across the country, aiming to translate electoral politics into a language the so-called Youtube generation could understand and feel inspired by. Rick Mercer dedicated a whole rant to the same goal. But despite the imaginative videos, the flag-waving, the pumping music and the dancing, youth voter turnout didn’t really budge.

This might stem from the fact that social media is just one of the places we turn to for cues about how to be in the world. And unfortunately, it’s awfully hard to be enchanted by the political sphere as it is interpreted and presented to us by the sum total of these other information sources. It is hard to see why a person should care.

Take, for example, the coverage of Thomas Mulcair’s election as the NDP’s new leader on March 24th. I watched the convention and voted in real time. I listened, trying to imagine the different directions each candidate wanted to take the party. I tried to decide, as did my fellow voters, which candidate would stay truest to the values that brought us to buy a membership in the NDP.

But the next day, the first headline I saw was something like this: “NDP Vote Marred by Technical Difficulties; Lacklustre Speeches.”

Sure, it’s just a headline. And as I’m frequently reminded by journalists, “deskers” write the headlines, and the headlines often make journalists cringe too. But the headline is meant to encapsulate the main point of an article, and for this article, the main point was that online voting was a bit slow and the speeches were boring. The direction of a political party, and its capacity to fight for and create the Canada its supporters want to see, was somehow marginalized by strategic and tactical shortcomings.

The day Mulcair served as Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons for the first time, the story on CBC radio was this: Mulcair read his questions off of a piece of paper. The other leaders didn’t need notes.

What Mulcair and the others said, and the significance of their words against our particular political economic backdrop, were evidently not as important as putting the politicians’ performances to the Toastmasters test. Similar errors in focus occur whenever there is a protest to report on. The size of the crowd gets more attention than what the signs said, what the political-economic backdrop is, and what might have precipitated the protestors’ unrest.

I can only wager that journalists employed by mainstream news organizations shy away from “the issues” because they are afraid – indeed they are trained to be afraid – to even tread near them lest they appear to be taking a side. So, instead, they focus on the hard, objective ‘facts’ that seem apolitical because they can’t be challenged because they’re sensory. But this focus ends up feeding the status quo, because it effectively says ‘keep calm, carry on’ – there’s nothing but the nuts and bolts to see here, folks.

If we’re not easily captivated or entertained by the rhetorical and performative and numbers-based ‘game’ of politics – and that’s all it is, if you view it through the narrow lens provided by mainstream media – why would we give it another thought? Unless we are swept up into it by an inspiring political candidate or leader, or thrust into it via an issue near and dear to us, there don’t appear to be any good reasons to dwell on it any further.

What if the mainstream media bracketed concerns about whose voice shook, who tripped over their words, or who stumbled heading up the stairs, and focused instead on the critical social and economic issues at stake? What if they saw their role as defenders of the public interest, as the ones who could distil the bits of governing and politics that have real consequences for how we live our lives, make a living, and take care of ourselves and each other? My guess is that politics would change. Restoring the relevance of the political sphere would inevitably restore accountability to the political sphere. People would be watching, because they would see themselves and their concerns reflected back.

“Twelve Going on Thirty” OR “Is the Globe and Mail the Worst Newspaper Yet?”

16 Mar

What do I have in common with a 12-year-old? Other than being alive, right now, in the same world, I’d like to wager ‘not a whole lot.’

Yet psychologist Jean Twenge is working on the assumption that we share a generation, and for the Globe and Mail, it just might be “the worst generation yet”.

Twenge and her colleagues found that the vast cohort born between 1982 and 2000 (that is, people aged 12-30, including pre-pubescent people in junior high school, who daydream about Justin Beiber and were babies when the twin towers fell, as well as people who’ve been through medical school, who might remember the Berlin Wall, who might have school-aged children of their own) is “more civically and politically disengaged than Gen-Xers or baby boomers were at that age” and is “more focused on materialistic values and less concerned about helping the larger community.”

Now, I’m sure these researchers “controlled” for age with some fancy statistical manipulation, but I’m not buying it. The absurd practice of dividing population into aggregates, based on pre-determined birth-year intervals, and then examining the people in those aggregates to see what commonalities emerge, is a dangerous, misleading and divisive use of social science.


Yet it’s widely condoned in sociology and psychology, and especially management science. It makes the world easier to deal with, conceptually, in neat little self-contained parcels, but the world isn’t a neat-little-parcel-kind-of-place. If you talk to ordinary people at length about what a generation is, as I have, you find that they recognize the slipperiness of the concept when it comes to actually applying it to the people around them in any uniform, final way. It’s a useful concept for describing patterns and social processes, and the wave-like introduction of new people and especially new ideas into our social worlds and cultural repertoires, but it makes a flimsy container for actual people. This is particularly the case when you try to shove a 28-year-old like me into the same box as a 12-year-old.

I remember being 12. All I wanted to do was play in the woods. I thought a mushroom cut was a good idea. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wished I was a cat. By 13, all I wanted to do was go to the mall, hang over the railings and whistle at boys. I didn’t think washing my hair was very important. I wanted to be a fashion designer. By 16, all I wanted to do was drive around yelling at pedestrians. I wouldn’t have been caught dead on a bicycle. I still wanted to be a fashion designer. By 20, I’d somehow ended up in university. All I wanted to do was make money so I could buy clothes. I thought wearing a red shirt with red boots and a red bag and getting into my red Hyundai Scoupe was fashionable and understated.

Until I was 20, I thought politics was a drag, I just wanted to be left alone to live my life, and I only really cared about myself and my tiny personal orbit. Today, all I want to do is put down roots and make a difference in a community. I ride my bicycle everywhere. I watch the news and I know about politics. I am different from all of those other selves, because I’ve aged, and because ageing in our contemporary age structure means moving through a whole series of constructed life stages, with all of their attendant expectations and norms and social pressures and constraints and enablements.

This isn’t to say that the idea of generations doesn’t have some use for understanding the complexity that arises where two different kinds of time – biographical and historical – intersect. What I am saying is that conflating that amorphous and messy idea with the idea of cohort (which is what we really mean when we point to shared birth years), as Susan McDaniel puts it, “while popularly engaging, is analytically imprecise, as well as misleading and socially divisive.”

This conflation is not the only problem with Twenge’s study and the Globe and Mail’s reporting of it. The other problem, just as ubiquitous as the first, is that the emphasis on the psychological traits of different cohorts of young people at different historical junctures eclipses the equally or more important role that socio-historical conditions play in shaping people’s lives and their very beings.

I have already written about this at length, here and here. I’ve tried to emphasize the socioeconomic and cultural factors that shape people’s responses and adjustments to things like work, community and politics. I’ve done this because the social, supra-individual aspect of so-called ‘generational differences’ is crucial for understanding why young people’s lives might play out differently from the lives of their parents and grandparents.

But, unfortunately, even though most psychology researchers will emphasize the impact of “culture,” it’s the psychopathology of generations that ordinary people, journalists especially, seem to latch onto. We like to think that the differences we call “generational” are primarily psychological, reducible to some whims and character traits that somehow come to characterize entire waves of people who share nothing for certain except a birth year (or an 18-year range, in this case).


We also like to think we’re bearing witness to something entirely new – the “worst” generation, worse than all others before it – but a little humility is in order. Every so often – usually around periods of significant technological, social, economic and political change – the laser beam of public discourse zaps in on generations, and young people in particular, as the crucial fulcrum-point between the old and the new. It happened in the 1960s; that’s when The Gap, purveyor of fine khakis, got its name, from a popular book by the same name. It resurfaced with the artistic and literary “discovery” of Gen-X. It’s happening now, and it will most certainly happen again.

It might be time to unknot our underwear. Sure, it is the Globe’s style to pass off under-researched hyperbole as “controversy” – that’s how they justify Margaret Wente – but we’re not obligated to participate.

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.

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