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.

Recommended read: The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions.

Recommended read: The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions.

My recommended read is The brilliance of asking incredibly naïve questions by Megan Hustad. I am preoccupied at the moment with putting together a workshop I will be presenting in October called Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise in the Changemakers Festival. This workshop is aimed at people who want to leave the bureaucratic or corporate spheres and set up a charity or social enterprise, but who don’t know where to start. During the workshop I want to help these people clarify what it is that is driving them – their passions, their inspirations, the shape in their minds that their sense of altruism and / or adventure takes – and then to give them some context and some practical suggestions as to where their researches might start. The challenge for me as workshop facilitator will be in making sure that I ask the right questions. I checked my email shortly before starting to write this and found that a good friend had sent me a call for papers for a conference on “The role of design in building a competitive business advantage” which seeks to “examine how design as a strategic resource adds value to business.” She did this because she knows that design thinking – what I have been used to calling ‘my choreographer’s brain’ all these years – in business is something that fascinates me to the extent that I have been doing a lot of research on it this year. The idea of submitting an abstract made my head buzz simultaneously with terror and delight. I think I might set myself the task of developing an abstract, just for the challenge of forcing myself to get some of my observations down in tangible form. The key to writing a good abstract and paper will be to ask myself the right questions. Furthermore, I would like to use a paper to ask my audience (at this stage, hypothetical audience) the right questions. But what are these ‘right questions’. The welcome discipline of both of the above is the necessity of winnowing down my thoughts to their clearest and most essential forms. The challenge of asking myself “but what does that really mean, why am I lead to think that?” is helping me to locate and articulate ideas that have had to be teased out of years of personal history, experience in multiple work places and different sectors, and learning both formal and informal. I was looking in my scribble library today when I came across an article – The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions – published in Fortune Magazine and written by Megan Hustad. It’s a really nice piece, and discusses the need for a “questioning culture” in our workplaces where folks feel free to ask each other questions without worrying about whether those questions are too simple or make the asker look dumb. It makes the point that ‘simple’ questions can highlight essential gaps in knowledge and / or elicit profound answers. It was a good piece for me to read today because it reminded me that what I am doing right now, in putting together workshops or writing papers, is trying to find a way to ask myself the right questions so that I can ask these of others. If you want to read Megan’s piece, click here.