Chasing dignity and work

 

In a couple of weeks' time my modest family of three will be spread across 4000-plus kilometres and two continents, all in the cause of finding work. While my adult daughter has been living and working in a country town an eight-hour drive away from home since late last year, my spouse flies in and out to work in one of Western Australia's many mines.

Various people hold up the letters of the word 'work' in various states of assemblage. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonI am the last to hit the road and will venture the furthest, to a different country altogether in Southeast Asia. For a while there I was the base station, holding the fort while the other two transitioned in and out, exhausted in turn from the long drive home or 14 days of non-stop 12-hour shifts. If you had asked us two years ago, not one of us would have wanted to work that far from home or apart from each other.

Meanwhile, the 18 year old lad next door has been looking for his first job since graduating from high school 18 months ago. Untrained yet willing, his parents fret he may decline into a slump. To our left, two houses away, a young woman works out of her rented villa giving art lessons to primary school children. A migrant from China, her hours are long and erratic, and weekends, as far as I can see, are almost entirely taken up with work.

In between our two homes dwells the only family where the traditional mode still survives — a single breadwinner in a regular nine-to-five job supporting the entire family of six. Earning a crust seems to have become much tougher and more complex for all of us. Was it always this complicated or have we all been lulled into expecting steady and stable work?

When news of my impending move broke within the extended family, one sister messaged: 'I admire your family ... ' Reading between the lines I asked, 'Because we are all over the place?' 'For a living ... ya,' she explained. Her question made me pause and consider again what I am trying to achieve in the move.

I would be lying if I said there were no jobs available in Perth that I could put my mind to. There have been offers, contracts and part-time gigs that together would have enabled me to make a living. None, it must be said, were for permanent, ongoing work — a day a week for two years at one employer, the possibility of two days a week for a year at another, as well as various odd jobs assisting on projects. I realise that many out there struggle to find similar opportunities and I am privileged as an educated, migrant woman to even have these options. So why leave a comfortable home and transplant myself elsewhere?

In between writing the first sentence in the first paragraph and now, I have been chewing over this question for a month or so. The truth is, the uncertainty of floating from one contract to another, working with multiple employers to cobble together a living from fragments of reputation, networks and goodwill, is corrosive.

 

"Being disobedient and creating one's own social otherwise can only go so far. More is needed if one is to have simple human dignity."

 

Amid the hopping from teaching a class to a meeting with collaborators to sitting down to mark a pile of essays and then back to thinking about a project, one is left with scant time to think of engaging with the community, an important, if not the most vital, responsibility of an academic. Any semblance of independence is abandoned as one hustles — and it is actually a hustle, always with one eye on the horizon for the next prospect. It is even tougher for newer scholars to develop the necessary networks and find work mostly as sessional academics.

I could style myself a freelance scholar, but going free range in academia confers few advantages, as institutional association and reputation are part of one's employability. For example, an employee of Oxford University would automatically be held in higher regard (until proven otherwise) than an employee of a provincial third-tier university. Such are the shallow rubrics by which we are evaluated, if only on first impressions.

Despite contemporary society's valorisation of the entrepreneurial self, its reality is one of disempowerment. According to Peter Bieri in Human Dignity: a Way of Living: 'powerless is the absence of a specific power: the power to be able to fulfill a desire'. What name do we put to a desire (or perhaps a need) so strong that it compels one to leave the comforts of home for the untried fields of a new institution in another country?

Last year I wrote of finding 'pleasure in the exercise of our energies' as the work of disobedience. I wanted then, and still do advocate, that we reclaim our joy in work from the KPIs, performance reviews, criteria and targets that surround our professional lives. That was my bid to retreat to an inner sanctum, to create what Bieri terms 'inner autonomy' and decide for myself the value and meaning of my work. As the year progressed, I wrote again of finding support, stability, autonomy and trust through 'a social otherwise' composed of family, friends, communities and place.

What is now clear to me is that being disobedient and creating one's own social otherwise can only go so far. More is needed if one is to have simple human dignity. Described by Bieri as three interwoven parts, 'the way I am treated by other people ... how I treat them [and] the view I have of myself', it is the chase for dignity and not work itself that decided me to move yet again.

There are, Bieri says, eight ways of experiencing human dignity: as autonomy, encounter, respect for intimacy, truthfulness, self-respect, moral integrity, a sense of what matters, and the acceptance of finitude. It is too early to tell if all the experiences of human dignity he details are fulfilled here, at my new institutional base, but six out of eight give me cause to hope, and that's not a bad place to start from. I'm sure the young man next door who now happily starts his day at 4.30am to get to work would agree with me.

 

 

Susan LeongSusan Leong is Senior Lecturer at Monash University Malaysia and Adjunct Research Fellow with Curtin University in Western Australia. Her work has been published in Peril Magazine, Critical Asian Studies, New Media and Society and Thesis Eleven. Her research interests include digital media in Asia, internet sovereignty and banal precariousness.

Topic tags: Susan Leong, work

 

 

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