It’s too easy to come back to work after what for many of us was a biblical summer of social and economic crisis to a sinking feeling that work is somehow over. Last week my work calendar started with a bump. A conference in Belfast about work, hard core industrial relations and sociological critiques of the ‘what the…!!!?” is happening to work. The ‘post-work’ debate about whether its all just, well, bullshit.
Like the vast majority of labour relations academics I find myself in the increasingly depressing position of developing an ABS4 ranked understanding of the downgrading of my own working life. As someone who doesn’t drink, it also means that conferences are a psychic stretch. Relentless hours of eye watering research into the demise of work and new and improved forms of exploitation captured with startling methodological clarity, it’s hard not to hit the pop.
I’m not expecting you to feel much sympathy for professional academics because the image is one of privilege. But actually, like most professional jobs, for the academic class precarity has become firmly established. Far from our professorial fantasies, 54% of academic staff are now on insecure contracts. There has been a dramatic rise of ‘associate’ lecturers and teaching only contracts, from fixed term to hourly paid we’ve hit the precarity tipping point. Increasingly we have to raise money to keep our jobs with contract researchers spending 25% of their time trying to raise the money for their own salaries. These days you pretty much won’t get promoted if you don’t raise funding four times your salary. Inequalities have deepened with women facing higher barriers to publication and the national shame of only seventeen black women professors in the UK.
This is compounded by the embarrassing issue of money. You still hear colleagues telling each other not to complain because we’re privileged but it’s the +50s permanent contract staff that are saying this. The ones who made it through to senior academic level before the housing crisis and the progression gate was firmly bolted shut somewhere in 2017. A growing percentage of us are not rich, we don’t own our own homes and earn just enough to cover our bills. Given the freeze on pay, to earn more money we have to work hourly paid which in HE works out at about 2.99p an hour.
This financial pressure reduces rather than raises our chances of progression which is why academics tip toe around these financial realities. Most of us working in the public sector already wake up feeling like failures and unwilling to open up about our financial vulnerability. As a result, there continues to be a profound preference in the profession for saying clever stuff over talking about our actual experience. Precarity is a hard professional look to rock.
The fact that we can talk about anything other than our own financial realities means that our intellects are often blunted in these debates. There exists a culture of Noa’s-arkism, right across the professional and public sectors, where we continue to compete for places on the professional stage as if the institutional context was still working. Because enough people think they have a place on the career boat academia keeps chugging along, leaving those of us who are pretty clear that we don’t have a place with awkward silences and crying in the toilets. I often find myself wondering during presentations just how charming I could be if I had more money and secure housing.
The post-work debates
One of the things that’s happening within the debates about the end of work is a conscious blurring of the empirical and the normative (for a fantastic read by Paul Thompson go here). Between facts and political fantasies both on the right and left of the political spectrum. Because automation is happening and digital companies a driving force across the public sector and emerging platform economy, it’s true to say that work in many parts of the world is changing. But this is a long way from the emergence of a post-work society where people survive by a mixture of engaging with the shared economy and a Universal Basic Income. Some on the left and the right herald this as the emergence of a liberated creative life away from the grind of actually earning a living, a Marxist utopia . This is combined with the critique of #bullshitjobs, an industry in its own right investing in the claim that 50% of jobs are bullshit, drawing on the cultural kick-back against cynical attempts to promote the ‘work is good for you’ wellbeing agenda and the undeniable evidence of how downgraded work has become for many of us. Tempting.
It is precisely as this seduction sets in that my cynicism about academia recedes because this is the point at which the old guard of industrial relations come into their own. A powerful combination of historical and political perspectives and actual facts providing the steadying argument that what we are seeing now is a combination of non-facts and a sustained political attack on decent jobs. And that, comrades, is nothing new in the world of work.
It’s true that work can change through technological process but the consequences of that depend on a number of things including the nature of the job, something pretty obvious to non-academic workers. Despite the hype, most jobs created globally require actual people to do them. True that the digital tech companies will spin you a fantastic line about automation and AI, and even persuade politicians to buy into this, but nobody apart from Matt Hancock believes you can provide healthcare with an app. The reason why we’re here now trying to defend ourselves against the robots is that someone somewhere is making a lot of money out of the degradation of work and wages. Understanding what is happening to jobs requires looking at the actual jobs and the institutional context within which they exist. That’s just comparative employment relations for you.
The literature around #bullshit jobs really works on social media and taps into our immense and growing resentments about how we are treated at work. It draws crowds and builds ‘celebrity’ activists advocating liberation from work, leaving the rest of us who can’t afford to give up on work awkwardly shuffling our feet.
Academic discussions about the downgrading of work has been framed over the last two decades within a debate about ‘precarious’ work. Part of this debate is characterised by the writings of Guy Standing, arguing that neo-liberal labour market flexibility has led to an increase in precarious work, defined by labour insecurity, lack of social income and work-based identity. This change is building a “class-in-the-making”, a “precariat” representing a potentially dangerous new underclass which will over time reject existing institutions and demand autonomy to create new social and workplace organizations.
Despite the lack of evidence of a global and revolutionary new class emerging from changes in work organisation, Standing’s ‘precariat’ formulation has caught our attention. This “transformation thesis” (precarious work = creation of a precariat) involves significant generalisations and misconceptualisations about the scale and nature of the changes that have taken place. We haven’t all become precarious to the same degree at the same time. This over-generalisation has resulted in a substantial gap between public perception and real labour market changes.
It is important not to confuse an emotional reality of insecurity with structural insecurity of the employment relationship. For example, we often mix up job stability, defined as length of job tenure, with job security, a much more complex and ‘messy’ idea involving perceptions, probabilities and anxieties. Importantly in an austere country, our sense of job security is not just about the job – it’s about what we think would happen if we lost it, involving other factors such as changes in welfare, occupational change and casualisation.
The catastrophe of work
One of the problems with framing our thinking about the future of employment relations within the ‘post-work’ debate is that it has a catastrophising tendency, both psychically and materially. In a context of austerity and recession, automation and performance management the problem of work is too big to take on. It becomes a work problem that cannot be solved. This seriously underestimates the small victories that many of us experience in improving working conditions, as well as the pleasure that many of us still get from our working lives.
Most universities are not like Oxford and Cambridge. I teach a majority of working class, diverse and dynamic students from all over the world. The one thing you can predict about the students at post-92 universities is that the pressure is on to prepare them for the hard realities of working life. Far from being snowflakes, because the prospect of a long term employment relationship has been bred out of young people they want too little not too much. Most of my students have experienced bullying and racism at work, and are genuinely pleased to be taught by people who don’t deny the hard facts of working life. As the rise in student suicides indicates, these are not young people who are benefitting from a cotton wool institutional buffering. And with 32% of UK students feeling ripped off you don’t last long working in HE if you can’t deliver something useful.
I enjoy teaching, profoundly. There has never been a time when creating some space to think without punishment has been so relevant. Like many people tucked away in business schools, I never really thought I’d end up teaching HRM managers, or working in a department claiming leadership, but since we’re here I’m happy to tell you we’re all human beings, most of us genuinely wanting to learn how to survive work.
So it is with some degree of irony that those of us tasked with this public service are feeling so redundant. The catastrophisation of the problem of the downgrading of work serves to obscure both the value of what we actually do and the concrete steps that can be taken to reduce labour insecurity, as this year’s USS pension strike showed.
Ordinary organising at work
It’s important here to understand that the catastrophisation of work is profoundly politically motivated. Whether its the new generation of ‘marxist’ capitalists or the digiceuticals sector, it’s very convenient that work is now defined as a problem that can only be solved by adopting magic solutions. AI or international revolution, making the ordinary stuff of doing a good job and joining a union useless. This magical thinking is playing to the crowd, and those groovy middle-class kids interning as platform economy revolutionaries.
By focussing on #bullshit jobs we’re at risk of ignoring the obvious here, that the ordinary and everyday work of organising groups of workers to raise working conditions is all we’ve got to address what’s happening at work.
Much of the literature “airbrushes out” trades unions describing them as old school labourists only interested in traditional membership. It’s pretty disastrous for working people to ignore probably the most likely source of support for genuinely insecure workers. It’s also inaccurate, denying the existence of the largest membership organisations in the world and failing to explain over 100 years of work by unions in precarious sectors like construction and agriculture. To be sure, trades unions were late to the game, and continue at times to drag their heels doing the much needed job of organizing. But that’s not always because they are old blokes, rather that organising externalised workers is inherently difficult and sometimes we don’t raise to the real challenges in front of us. We’re all guilty of that.
To remove ordinary organising from the strategic discussions about work with a broad ideological sweep of the left or right hand not only denies the everyday reality of organsing, but it also misses important opportunities for much needed change at the level of the workplace.
Over the next few months Surviving Work will be running a series of blogs and writings about the methods of solidarity and the organising challenge ahead.
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