Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

‘Working for the man.’

‘Day job’.

‘Wage slave’.

‘Death and taxes’.

‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…’

There is any number of dour expressions to describe interactions with the establishment. What do I mean by ‘the establishment’? I mean all that pesky… stuff we have to deal with to function and keep ourselves fiscally, legally, and civically nice while we live in this society. Some of this stuff will include things that we are happy to comply with; stuff that, by its presence, keeps our society stable and civil. Years ago, I used to teach small business management at a community centre in an outer suburb of Melbourne. All of the adult learners in my class were migrants, most were from refugee backgrounds and had fled regimes that were dangerously oppressive and corrupt. When we would come to work our way through the various rules and regulations with which they would have to comply, I would come armed with rationales to explain why, although this stuff was boring, compliance was essential. My learners were way ahead of me. “Red tape might be boring,” I heard on more than one instance, “but I come from a country where there was no red tape, or where the officials were untrustworthy. I prefer to be in a country where there’s red tape.”

So far, so edifying. If we’re honest, though, we have to admit that not all aspects of society work as well as they should. Some of this stuff feels burdensome, some of it induces anxiety. In ‘Money’ I referenced an article that talked about arts workers falling behind with their tax paperwork and opined that this was a result of nervousness about dealing with such matters. Centrelink has become so difficult to deal with over the years that I know people who consider it to be an actual risk factor in their lives.

Ways in which the parts of this overarching latticework of rules, laws, obligations, and their bureaucracies might be impacting your life during this weird time may include:

  • Negotiating a rent holiday or freeze with your landlord if you have been without income
  • Having to start looking for a job after your sole-trader practice fell off a cliff when the lockdowns started
  • Applying for a job stacking shelves after you lost your casual work at a university
  • Applying for the JobKeeper wage subsidy from the Australian Tax Office
  • Thinking about the consequences of, and applying for, early release of Superannuation from the Australian Tax office
  • And, of course, applying for Newstart via Centrelink and signing up with a Jobactive Provider.

If you are in grief you may not want to be doing any of this. But if you have lost an income stream you will have to find a way to do it even so. This is tough. Depending on how your grief has affected you, you may be feeling short on physical energy or mental focus or determination, and this stuff demands all of those.

And, perhaps, the cause of your grief – suddenly finding yourself excluded from the way you had chosen to make income or shut out from the workings of your sector – will make your reaction to dealing with the establishment even more acute. In the way you previously worked you had found a place within the establishment. It may have been a harmonious place – doing a job or running a business that you loved. Or it may have been a bit crappy, with you slogging your way up a ladder towards a vocational goal. But, either way, it was a place in the establishment. Now it has gone, and that little place in the broader scheme of things has either been locked down for the duration of the pandemic or you have been excluded from it by job loss. If one part of the establishment is suddenly shut off to you, and the only other part of the establishment that has a place for you is the dole queue, or even just a few months on the JobKeeper subsidy leading into an uncertain future, then a sense of loss may be amplified.

How is grief inflecting your attitudes towards the establishment right now? Have these attitudes shifted from how you felt in the ‘old normal’?

Are you dealing with forms of bureaucracy that you find to be tedious? Constraining? Unnerving? Threatening? If so, what forms of help are available to you to mitigate these effects: free legal advice, counselling services, financial counselling, community advocates, peak bodies?

If you find dealing with some of these entities to be difficult or testing, then it is important that you be aware of whether or not this will compound your grief. Grieving is a temporary phase you will (eventually) pass through. While grieving it is important to get the tricky balance right between allowing yourself to feel whatever it is you have to feel but not to fall into the trap of assuming that these feelings now define you or your future life. Feeling raw or shocked after the loss of a career or vocational pathway is one thing, to then be pummelled by Centrelink’s inefficient and punitive processes is quite another. The problem is, experiencing external negative pressure from, say, Centrelink may serve to reinforce feelings of being bereft, and this could, in turn, lead to feelings of hopelessness and a heightened state of stress. Dealing with Centrelink requires no little amount of resilience, and people in grief may feel lacking in resilience. It is absolutely vital that, if you are dealing with Centrelink, that you make a conscious effort to organise support systems around you to dispense moral, emotional, and informational support. The same goes for any bureaucracy or set of regulations that you find onerous or terrifying.

How have you dealt with establishment stuff in the past? When did you do it well? Make a list of past achievements to remind yourself that you do have strengths: grants successfully applied for and acquitted; projects well-managed; contracts negotiated; complaints you raised and had resolved in your favour; administrators befriended and petty bureaucrats defied. Artists are often characterised as flibbertigibbets or arty-farty wankers. But producing creative work is complex, both logistically and creatively, and many artists tend to overlook just how good they are at rolling out complicated projects. Other workers may have found the same – that society, through ignorance, characterises their work as being less demanding or skilled than it is. Do an audit on your past work; nominate the skills in dealing with establishment stuff; remind yourself that, even when functioning under duress, you have a history of holding your own against the demands of an impersonal civic society…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Grief and having to do stuff

Grief and having to do stuff

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Grief can play havoc with people’s energy levels. Some people feel hyperactive, some want to curl up in a ball and hibernate, dormouse-like. Others swing between the two.

With variations in mental energy come variations in the ability to concentrate or remember or prioritise. One of my personal red flags – a sure-fire indicator that I am disproportionately stressed – is when I can’t make what should be simple choices. Deciding what I want to cook for dinner tonight feels as hard and complex and irresolvable as deciding what I should do with the rest of my life.

As stated elsewhere in The next day, the fundamental challenge that I see many people facing right now, especially those in locked down or downsizing sectors, is living with a tension between their need to slow down and grieve and society’s need for them to buck up and earn some cash.

Grief has its own weird agenda and schedule; time works differently for the bereaved. Your grieving and energies may not neatly align with the date your rent is due or the deadline for a job application. Surges of energy and / or fatigue may make ticking stuff off on your to-do list feel daunting.

A man interviewed in an article on grief in the workplace said that “When your heart is broken, your head doesn’t work right.” New index measures the cost of on-job grief describes this poor soul coming into work in the months following the death of his daughter and spending half the day staring into space instead of attending to his tasks. Anyone with a skerrick of empathy can understand why.

Time management versus energy management.

Have you noticed how much we talk about ‘time management’, but never about energy management? This has never made sense to me. What is the point in tweaking your calendar or daily planner so that you carve out space for more activity, only to arrive at that point in the day feeling so tired or frazzled that you can’t concentrate or do work of quality?

Often our choices about how we use our time and energy are circumscribed by other things and people in our lives. The demands of parenting, caring, earning, or other commitments hoover up great tranches of time and energy, so we always find ourselves, either consciously or by instinct, juggling how much time we allot and how much energy we have to spare.

The process of grieving is, of itself, a form of work. Gladly undertaken it can be enriching work (and, yes, despite the discomfitures of this state gladly is the word I will use). But even grief denied or delayed will still draw energy from you. Grief doesn’t go anywhere; if your life has been impacted by a radical enough absence of something that was important to it then you will grieve. No options. Mindfully undertaken it can be enriching, and it can give context and a sort of inner framework for you to adjust to loss or absence. Grief ignored will hang around in the back of your mind and soul, lurking, festering, weighing you down until it finds a fissure in whatever you have slammed down over it.

But, being a form of work, grief demands energy. And an intensity of energy that draws you away from the day-to-day energies you usually employ to get stuff done. So, the challenge during this time is finding the balance between the two; carrying a state of grief while achieving just enough efficiency to keep your material life together.

What’s your head for detail like? Are you making good judgement calls right now? Should you be recruiting help: a colleague to ‘check your homework’, or a counsellor to act as a sounding board, or a mentor to act as an advisor?

How is grief affecting your energy levels? Compared with how you operated in the ‘old normal’, have new patterns of energy use emerged? Do you like them or are they problematic? What adjustments can you make to accommodate them?

What were the ways in which your energy was drained before you lost your income stream? And how did you feel about that? Is part of your grief about resenting or regretting how the ‘old normal’ made you spend your energy? This is a gift, allowing you a heightened awareness of what you would like to invest your energy on in your new life.

If you are used to being productive then having your mental, emotional, or physical energies fractured by grief can be disconcerting. How do you work with these radically altered flows of energy?

On her Extraordinary Routines website, Madeleine Dore writes about the use of anchors or checkboxes for people who, for whatever reason, are struggling to stick to a routine. An anchor is an activity that acts as a sort of simple ritual that centres you within a focused mindset. Checkboxes identify essential activity that you want to fit sometime, somewhere into your day. Dore describes these as simple and flexible. Perhaps they are good tactics for someone who is too frazzled to follow a routine or power through a to-do list.

I have a personal tactic that I mentally call ‘creating in fragments’. In fact, this is why I have characterised The next day as a bundle of notes rather than an essay, a monograph, or a short book. My ‘lockdown’ brain isn’t working in concentrated stretches. This odd atmosphere I’m living in – the challenge to hold my psyche in a state of suspension while keeping myself nice – means that my concentration and moods fluctuate. This tends to happen to me at times in my life when I’m stressed. So, I just tell myself that that’s OK, that’s how it’s going to be for a while, and when I work, I work in bite-sized pieces. This is not ideal for creating large and / or complex work, but it is effective in getting some work done, leaving you poised to take advantage of better conditions and more harmonious flows of concentration when they become available. As they will.

These tactics may or may not work for you. I am sure that, based on your own life experience and the challenges it has meted out, you will have coping strategies of your own.

I think the key thing here is to understand that you are currently doing stuff while under duress and to adjust your expectations accordingly. Before thinking about what you should be doing, or how you should be doing it, and certainly how well you should be doing it, think about how well you should be treating yourself. For you are in grief because of the absence of something important to you. What do you need to do to deal with that? Decide this, and then choosing priorities and tactics will become clearer.

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Grief and having to function: Money

Grief and having to function: Money

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

While writing this note, I have been acutely influenced by my concerns for two groups of people because I used to be them – my career saw me belong to these two communities – and I know how fraught money stuff is for them. Problems with money stuff were part of the reason why I abandoned my own arts career.

The two groups are casual workers and contractors working in the university sector, and freelancers and casuals working in the arts sector. Due to insecure work, a high incidence of short-term contracts, contracts that demand a mix of paid and unpaid work, low pay rates, poor conditions, unclear and non-linear vocational pathways, shortfalls in funding, and a culture of not paying for creative or cultural labour in society at large, both these groups are often precariously employed, and both struggle with financial insecurity.

When I used to either train people in small business planning or mentor people in the arts sectors about it, it used to strike me that my challenge was not in the imparting of information or techniques, but in dealing with people’s lack of confidence.

Money management isn’t actually hard, in a strict cognitive sense, for the uncomplicated business models of most sole-traders. Constructing budgets, cash flow projections, or profit and loss statements is usually a matter of basic maths. Keeping track of paperwork shouldn’t be hard for people with the kind of discipline that equips them to write PhDs or compose musicals. But, because money plays such an important role in the way our society functions, people’s feelings about money are often fraught and complex.

The article Performers and sole traders find it hard to get JobKeeper in part because they get behind on their paperwork describes how tax agents and student volunteers at the University of NSW Tax Clinic have seen numerous sole traders in the arts who have outstanding paperwork to lodge with the Australian Tax Office. This means that these sole traders were not eligible for the JobKeeper wage subsidy during Australia’s lockdown, as being up to date with ATO paperwork was a condition of eligibility. This article, which is sympathetic to the plight of these arts workers, only mentions in passing why these arts workers have fallen behind:

If a business is cash-strapped and the owner is struggling financially and psychologically struggling, a visit to a tax accountant tends not to be high priority, if indeed the business has the cash to pay the agent.”

Based on my experience and observations of arts workers, I feel that I can hazard a guess as to why they are reluctant to deal with financial stuff: it distresses them.

Precarious workers have a difficult personal history with money. They may struggle to find enough for their basic needs, or their cash flow is vulnerable to disruption. Over time, the effect can be brutalising. Thinking about and talking about money makes them anxious. As a result of past stress and disappointments, their expectations of financial security can be low.

There is a risk that precariously employed people can bring a pre-existing sense of trauma around their finances into their current situation when they are thrust into an economic downturn that even usually sober and non-histrionic types in suits are calling unprecedented. Eminent economists are writing about us in Australia all falling off a financial cliff in September when the government starts winding back its wage and unemployment-relief subsidies. Already anxious people are being bombarded with grim headlines about an uncertain future.

Pre-existing fears of doubt – patterns of tension and insecurity around money – may be compounding, or compounded by, current and valid fears around being without an income stream due to pandemic lockdowns and economic contractions.

Overlaying these very real issues connected with the current economic climate is another narrative that is the result of political will and mentioned elsewhere in The next day: that, according to the current federal government,  the arts and humanities are too expensive for Australia to afford and too useless to justify spending money on.

And yet another issue – Newstart, or ‘the dole’, has been roundly condemned for years of being too low for the unemployed to live on. Those doing the condemning have ranged from organisations in the community sector through to economists through to the business sector. The reasons these varying groups are advocating for a higher rate of Newstart range from the humane to the practical – the rate of the dole is so low that it is actually an obstacle to people being able to cover basic costs of living and, therefore, being able to resource their job-seeking.

In March of this year, when the whole of Australia locked down, the federal government surprised everyone by adding on a temporary subsidy to Newstart, in effect doubling the rate of pay. The media reported the delight of unemployed people being able to afford three meals a day that included fresh fruit and vegetables, actually paying down debts, and replacing worn-out clothes and furniture. But the government kept signalling that this subsidy was only temporary. Despite a surge of advocacy to permanently raise the rate of Newstart, the government will start cutting it back from the end of September and return it to its originally impoverishing level just after Christmas.

Many people – across all sectors – are boggling at this. People who work for businesses that are struggling are terrified of ending up on the dole. Those who are already unlucky enough to be on it are wondering how they will survive.

This is a daunting background against which to come to terms with losing a job or income streams.

The challenge here for someone mourning a loss of work while taking stock of the practicalities of finding a way to survive and then rebuild is how to do that without entrenching underlying anxiety about money that may lead to self-sabotage, an inability to negotiate fair terms and good pay or fees, or a lack of general positivity about the future.

I acknowledge that this is tough. The dour old cliché – ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ – has a depressing truth sitting behind it: if you have nothing in this commercial world of ours then you have no agency. No sole-trader or small business owner had control over us all going into lockdown. (For the record, while I acknowledge how tough lockdown was on businesspeople, I fully support it as a necessary public health measure). None of us can prevent the government from winding back subsidies. The unemployed have no control over the fact that the normal rate of Newstart is too low to live on.

“Loss of control is frequently accompanied by grief,” commented an article in The Conversation recently. Before this year, the precariously employed had very little control over rates of pay or length or security of contracts, and I would argue that this tainted their relationship with money and a sense of abundance. My concern is that this prior compromising of a sense of agency around money will meld with grief over the loss of income and a lack of control over current economic conditions.

So where is your sense of agency in your grief over the loss of income when there are so many external pressures that you cannot control? What can you do?

I think the trick here is to try to understand that your state of grief and negative feelings attached to money that previously arose from difficult experiences are two different things. Don’t mush them together.

Speaking of mushing, I am now going to quote from an advice column written by sled-dog musher Blair Braverman about how to grieve for a dead pet dog. This will look like a digression but bear with me.

Writing to a person who is consumed with guilt over a moment of inattention that may have led to the death of their dog, Braverman writes:

“Separate the guilt from the grief. The guilt is a lesson, contained. The grief is unlimited. The grief is what needs to heal.”

I think this is a useful discipline. If you have past difficult memories or associations with money – inadequacy, guilt, resentment, disappointment, stress? – are you able to see them as a lesson, contained? If you find it difficult to do this containing, and I appreciate that it could be tricky, then can you find someone to help you identify what can be learnt – and moved on from – and the grief to be lived with? A friend, a mentor, or a counsellor?

Grief is difficult, but it does have a place in our lives and can, ultimately, be a healing or enriching experience. It does not have to be corrosive. Anxiety about money is corrosive; lived with it undermines people’s sense of worth and makes them fearful for the future. Part of your grief may be about mourning the effect of years of poverty – absolutely valid – but don’t sink into that grief in such a way that you can’t move on. Alongside a sense of loss of the way you have been working, you do have the capacity to rebuild either your existing vocation, albeit following a different pathway, or finding different work that is fulfilling. Negative feelings about money must not make your expectations of the future stingy or hopeless.

Your vocational trajectory is not the only thing to have died this year. The exploitative business models that made earning an honest buck in the past so hard have also taken a battering. We are still finding out which, exactly, but components of those models will have died too. Some of them will be forced back to life by rich people to whom they were beneficial, and they will lurch through our economy like zombies. But in their disruption different alternatives will have space to emerge. Perhaps these contain opportunity for you…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Urgency, grief, and loss of vocation

Urgency, grief, and loss of vocation

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

After losing your job or vocation, do you have a sense of urgency about the choices you have to make right now?

Why? Where is this sense of urgency coming from?

Do you need to pay the rent next month, but don’t know how you are going to earn the money to do it?

Are you able to pay the rent for a while thanks to your redundancy package and/or wage subsidy (like the JobKeeper payment), but still feel pressure to get a new job – any job – ASAP?

Why?

Is it because every time your Mum rings up she asks, “so, have you got a job yet?” Is it because everybody in your friendship circle is talking about their job search and/or money problems? Is it because every time you click on the news you see Scott Morrison talking about “snapping back” the economy to the ‘old normal’?

If you are trapped in a building with a bunch of colleagues who are all speculating on whether or not they will lose their jobs when the next round of redundancies will be announced, and whether or not they will ever get another job in their sector again, then that fear can be contagious. Similarly, if you are a member of the arts community and every other contractor or sole-trader you know in the sector has lost income streams, contracts, has had venues closed and events shut down and doesn’t know when the sector will open back up again, if every channel or forum of promoting, showing, and selling your creative products or services has disappeared, then that sense of devastation can spread through networks like wildfire. These fears may feasibly turn out to be valid. But, then again, new unexpected avenues for people to pursue their vocations might appear. No one knows right now and that is fuelling people’s sense of desperation and, therefore, sense of urgency.

Do you feel a sense of urgency because there is a small quiet voice deep inside of you that is telling you that you’re washed up, ‘it’s all over’, you’re a loser, you’re a failure, now that you don’t have a job?

Do you feel a sense of panic because your sector has imploded, and you cannot see what the future holds for you?

If you feel that you urgently need to make decisions about your future, it is important to understand where this sense of urgency comes from: inside of you or because of messages you are receiving from other people.

It is also important to understand if the pressure is due to real demands (the rent must be paid, or you will be evicted) or the emotional contagion of other people’s panic or negative expectations.

In your grief, are your insecurities flaring up and dragging your self-image down? Do you feel urgent about proving yourself to your inner demons?

Nobody knows how the future is going to unfold, exactly. Writing for The Journal of Beautiful Business, researcher Jonathan Cook states:

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Anybody who is making specific predictions about the marketplace right now doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

There may be terrible things waiting for us all – who knows? – but why should there not be opportunity for those who are able to adjust. Sitting in a space of uncertainty can feel hard. But, while you’re sitting there, why not process your grief?

Yes – you certainly do have to find ways of paying the rent in the short term. But do not allow other people’s perceived sense of urgency invade or shape your grieving process. It is your time to come to terms with what has happened to you, to access the positive aspects of grief – a sense of liberation from the conditions attached to the ‘old normal’ that didn’t do you any favours, or perhaps insight or clarity into your values and shifting priorities. This is your time to adjust to the radical absence of something that has been shaping your life; do not let other people’s opinions as to what you should be getting on with shape that adjustment process. This could be easier said than done – there are a lot of opinions flying around right now as to how shit everything is and what everyone should be doing. Those of you who have signed up for welfare will have a compliance regime to deal with [groan!]. That’s hard.

But be aware of your grief, of your right and need to grieve. Be aware of the vulnerabilities and the opportunities for insight they contain and take anyone else’s message of urgency with a grain of salt. The state of grief may be a difficult one to experience, but it is also a special time, a stage of life given to you to come to terms with and adapt to the radical absence of something important to you. This special time is yours: cling onto it.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Starving in a garret…

Starving in a garret…

Alongside digital sociologist Alexia Maddox and researcher, artist and event designer Romaine Logere, I am currently co-curating and co-facilitating Parallel Fascinations at The Channel, Arts Centre Melbourne, a series of salon type events dedicated to supporting the development of new ideas and research and interdisciplinary conversation.

For our fourth salon, we were lucky to have curator and writer Amelia Winata* talking about the tension between creative practice and arts administration. You can read more about the event on our Parallel Fascinations blog.

Art making versus arts administration

For me, as with others in the room, Amelia’s chosen topic of conversation had a great deal of resonance. I have worked as an arts practitioner myself – in my case I was a performing artist and choreographer. But I have also worked in arts administration and arts management – project management, production management, event management, grant writing and fundraising, stakeholder management, business planning. I enjoyed doing both these things but doing them both at once fatigued me and was one of the factors that lead to eventual burnout.

Another was a strong sense of disillusionment with the way the arts industry is structured, with its tiers of class privilege, convoluted bureaucratic procedures (especially in the areas of grant and contract management), and paucity of funding (even worse now than in my day). There seems to be a disconnect between the more agile responses of artists to creative opportunities and the slow and tedious processes of arts administration. It was interesting that my own feelings of discontent seemed to be mirrored by others in the room.

Starving Poet and Publisher by Thomas Rowlandson, late 18th cent.
Starving Poet and Publisher by Thomas Rowlandson, late 18th cent.

There was some tentative discussion around possible working models that could accommodate both a free flowing creative process and an efficient arts administration process; if the discussion at this point was tentative it was not in mood but because no one, with any certainty, seemed to be able to suggest something that could actually work. The problem as felt by many individual artists or even small collectives is that there are only so many hours in a day, and time spent on filling in paperwork is time stolen from creating work. The other problem is the nature of the thinking you have to do – you use a very different part of your intellect and emotional intelligence to write a grant application than you do to paint or compose; the theft here is one of focus and inspiration.

The Holy Grail

As a freelance performer who had to produce her own shows and then, later, as an arts manager I found that I loved certain aspects of the management process, namely creating strategies and project plans, relationship development, persuasive writing and marketing, and it is these things I bring forward into my current freelance practice as a trainer. These things appealed to my choreographer’s brain – choreography is about arranging things and people in time and space as is business strategy. Clunky and tautological bureaucratic process has always irritated me – it offends the designer in me. I can spot slapdash planning from a mile off, too; there is too much of these in evidence within the arts industry in Australia.

I decided to go into arts management because I was inspired to help other artists and to try to relieve some of the strain I could see they were experiencing in producing their work. My holy grail was to develop an approach to creative producing or project managing an arts show that supported the artists, assuaged the bureaucrats, rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s but that ultimately produced great art. I like to think that, at times, I really did make a positive difference to the artists with which I worked, and I certainly learnt a heck of a lot about managing creative and innovative process, and this is precious to me in the work I’m doing now. But, against a background of ongoing uncertainty in funding, precarious employment, a lack of societal respect for contemporary art, and, at times, an almost tribal approach to protecting turf from others in the arts industry, I ended up feeling destabilised and exhausted.

I am still looking for that holy grail, am still passionate about supporting artists and arts and humanities academics, but, paradoxically, am steering well clear of the arts industry in my quest. And I still have no clear idea as to what that good working model could look like; just a vague notion of some lines of enquiry I could follow.

'Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail' by Franz Stassen (1869-1949)
‘Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail’ by Franz Stassen (1869-1949)

There is a dearly held belief in our society that artists are wankers and flakes – I am getting sick of hearing comments from people to that end. They’re no such thing – good artists are red hot implementers and have a gift for devising practical ways of making the products of their imaginations tangible; this is what makes them working artists instead of daydreamers. But the nature of the bureaucratic work and political lobbying the arts industry asks of them is enough to shut down even the most robust imagination.

*Amelia Winata’s bio: Amelia is an emerging curator and writer. She holds an Honours degree in Art History from the University of Melbourne. Her current projects include a curated exhibition of video art to be presented as part of Channels Festival 2015, and a writing mentorship with Gertrude Contemporary. She is currently Gallery Operations Coordinator at RMIT Gallery.

The Perils of the Educated Precariat

The Perils of the Educated Precariat

Alright, I’m in. I’m going to give this Work Out Loud thing a shot. This blog is to explain why.

For those dear readers who do not know, Work Out Loud is a movement which aims to improve the world of work through combining practices of “Observable Work + Narrating Your Work”. John Stepper, one of the movement’s most important facilitator’s, unpacked this in The 5 elements of working out loud:

  • Making your work visible
  • Making your work better
  • Leading with generosity
  • Building a social network
  • Making it all purposeful.

People who Work Out Loud put these principles into practice in numerous ways, but blogging, engaging in online dialogue (see the #wol, #workoutloud and current #wolweek hashtags on Twitter for example), and offering peer support online and (for some) via Work Out Loud circles (either online or off) seem to be popular mechanisms.

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Offering a helping hand…

“But people have been doing this since the stone age anyway…”

One interesting thing I have seen on Twitter is that people have different reasons and reactions to Working Out Loud, and this is, unsurprisingly, reflective of their personal needs and the conditions they are working in. Some have even questioned why there even needs to be a Work Out Loud ‘label’ to identify a way of working that comes naturally to many human beings anyway.

I think that I, too, have been Working Out Loud for yonks without being aware that a movement was springing up whose sole aim was to name this practise, contextualise it and give it visibility. I also feel that many in my own personal (platonic and professional) networks are also Working Out Loud in practice if not in name, and in such a way that shows they own most of the 5 elements above as personal values. I daily, literally daily, find myself pondering on my great good fortune in having the friends I have; I am again realising as I write this how lucky I am to know some people who actively manifest at least some of these elements.

So why bother to start buying into this named thingy, is it not redundant if I am already doing it?

What has sparked my curiosity is the fact that it has been named, and those principles have been nominated and are being used to strategically shape many individuals’ working and learning practice. My interest is in what happens when you name a thing that you may have taken for granted, and what happens when you (and your peers) focus on that named thing and put strategies in place to enact it, make it visible and encourage the involvement of others.

The formulation and naming of strategic goals (on a personal level as well as a professional one) is of deep interest to me. I have always been good at developing and analysing strategy; over the years many people have come to me to do this – sometimes within a formal work arrangement and sometimes in the form of informal advice. But, up until a couple of years ago, I had always significantly failed to strategise for myself and my own career. This is mad, because I essentially failed to use one of my strengths (and something that gives me great joy) to improve my own life. I am trying to work differently now; if I don’t I won’t progress towards where I want to go.

But this is not just about me. I see the uneven and disrupted forward progress of my life, and attendant problems, mirrored in the lives of many of my peers. There are, of course, differences to the ways and degrees in which this halted progress makes itself visible, but I am seeing patterns.

The Educated Precariat

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When I talk about my peers I am talking about people (mostly, it has to be said, women) who are middle aged or approaching it. The ecosystem from which I have emerged is made up of an educated precariat who work as creatives, community sector workers or academics; overwhelmingly we are from arts and humanities backgrounds. We are a privileged cohort in many ways: highly educated with a diverse mixture of high level professional skills gained through exposure to interesting work. We can see this privilege, and we want to use it to contribute to improving the world we live in.

We tend not to have linear career paths, but rather boast portfolios of projects and / or positions that we picked up often out of necessity, i.e. just needing a paid job. There is an advantage to this – you can find yourself in unexpected places, being challenged to use your skills in ways you never thought possible. Our portfolios of experience, therefore, are a definite component that advantages us. Many of us have mixtures of skills and knowledge that are unique.

Helen Gibson using some amazing skills just to hang in there
Helen Gibson using some amazing skills just to hang in there

But I am seeing a pattern of problems, obstructions, and frustrations building up too.

Underutilisation of skills is one source of angst – too many of us seem to be moving sideways into projects or sets of work responsibilities which no longer stimulate us and where we feel as if we are using only 10% or 20% of our skills, but promotions or more challenging projects seem to be thin on the ground.

Being exposed to difficult working conditions is another. Money is in short supply in the arts and community sectors. Projects and the small organisations where many of us work are underfunded and under resourced. Even those of us working for large institutions have found ourselves working on programs which are not budget priorities for their hosts. Projects and programs that are based on real need and great concepts fall far short of their potential or outright fail due to inadequate resourcing (human and financial) and this is a heartbreaking situation to be involved in. Funding for professional development or employee support programs is often non-existent. Some of us are unlucky enough, too, to be exposed to the poor governance and management practices (even sub-legal or illegal behaviour and bullying) that can proliferate when an organisation and even a whole sector and its leaders are put under continual stress. Too often, when I mix with my peers, I see the effect this is having on people – low confidence, fatigue, ebbing levels of ambition and hope, a growing disengagement with a vocation that once inspired, and even, distressingly, mental health issues.

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Personal finances are a particularly fraught area for many.

Too many people in my ecosystems have little or no savings, few or no assets, appallingly low levels of Superannuation (perhaps as low as $3000-$10,000 after 2 decades of work), but high levels of HECS debt (perhaps as high as $25,000). This despite having worked like Trojans all our lives, having been prepared to compromise on pursuing dream jobs (so no job snobbery in other words), and having been prepared to take calculated risks. Too much of our work is underpaid, underemployment and unevenly spaced contract work takes its toll. One outcome of having little disposable income is that further training and / or career counselling is out of your reach, which slows down an individual’s ability to improve their lot.

Our necessary work compromises have been part of the problem – our resumes have been fractured and diluted with jobs we took to pay the bills but didn’t want to do. The really unlucky among us have cycled on and off the dole and in and out of unskilled work in between working on projects that have been more suitable to our skill levels. But these same projects can be highly demanding but poorly paid and unhappy and distressing experiences, leaving the contractor to stagger away from a completed project with no savings in the bank, an uncertain employment future and contending with the disorientating effects of severe fatigue and chronic stress.

Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, dir. by DW Griffiths
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, dir. by DW Griffiths

Why, when we have so much to offer, are we stuck in this unpromising situation?

A rudimentary survey of conversations and articles in certain corners of the internet will quickly alert you to areas of need within many sectors – innovation, collaboration, consultation, intergenerational relationships, workplace culture are words that crop up again and again – and these areas of need happen to be the areas where my network of peers, those broke and overlooked people, really kick ass. So why do we have so little effect, so little influence, so little visibility, so little traction?

I love the kitchen table conversations I have with my peers – they are broad, deep, reflective, bold, imaginative, visionary, analytical, intellectually rigorous, emotionally gentle and forgiving. I love that my peers also make manifest these qualities in their personal art projects, their blogs, their volunteer work. My heart bleeds for us all when my peers reflect that these qualities are too often absent from their day jobs. The waste of talent, experience and skill makes me grind my teeth in frustration.

So how do we give these things a life beyond the kitchen table and the unpaid grass roots project on the weekends? How do we take all of our privilege – that education, experience and talent we are so lucky lucky lucky to have – and position it so that we do have some visibility? With all we have going for us we are 95% of the way there, but we have been stuck at the 95% level all of our lives. What is the missing factor? When it comes to vocational development and career progress how can we box just a bit more clever?

'School for female boxers in The Netherlands', 1932,   by Agence de Presse Mondiale Photo-Presses
‘School for female boxers in The Netherlands’, 1932, by Agence de Presse Mondiale Photo-Presses

We need to be conscious of what we do and who we are.

We need to frame our experiences so that others can learn about us and what we can do to help them and our society. We need to open up and let other different people support and comfort us with their knowledge and insights, gleaned from very different parts of the world from ours. We need to consciously own the values that have driven us instinctively or semi-consciously and which have informed our endeavours. We need to claim a place in the broader world and stop thinking of ourselves as a little ghetto of the overlooked and broke.

We need to put a name to all of this, we need to nurture it with conscious strategy. As in element 5 mentioned above, we need to make sure that we make our efforts purposeful on a strategic level.

Can Work Out Loud do this? I’m going to try and see. The movement appeals to my social and humane instincts anyway; I’m sure my involvement with it will provide me with fun and interest. What is there to lose?

Still from 'The Adventures of Kathlyn'
Still from ‘The Adventures of Kathlyn’

Update (24 June 2015): Just read this description of the life of a temporary lecturer. Well worth a read for the insights it gives into the working conditions of one of the educated precariat.

Update (25 June 2015): I came across the #cawls2015 and #pepso hahtags on Twitter. Turns out that #cawls2015 refers to the recent Canadian Association of Work Labour Studies conference; and #pepso refers to Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario. PEPSO launched a report at #cawls2015 – The Precarity Penalty: employment precarity’s impact on individuals, families and communities and what to do about it. Also presenting at #cawls2015 was John Shields. You can find his powerpoint for his presentation on Precarious Undertakings: Nonprofit Work, Funding and Communities at Risk on PEPSO’s blog too.