Reimagining work is a project for the unemployed, too

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Cartoon by Chris Johnston

A lawyer, an engineer and a surgeon had to create a dessert that would win them a reprieve from elimination on the 25 May episode of Master Chef Australia. As someone who was made at 16 to choose between studying to be a lawyer or an engineer by my parents, I found it reaffirming to watch how deeply they wanted to begin a career in cooking via the unlikely vehicle of a reality show.

It's a cliché but being a lawyer, engineer or doctor is among the dream jobs many parents (especially Asian parents like mine) wish for their children. After all, as was often pointed out to me, 'sooner or later we would need the advice and assistance of one or all of them'. Yet, despite the status, earnings and mountains of cash invested in their training, these Master Chef contestants had relinquished this and sacrificed time with loved ones to be part of the show.

Why is there such a disconnect between the jobs we train for and the jobs we want? Is the conflict between the urge to join professions that provide a good living and the urge to follow one's passion when choosing an occupation?

When I wrote a few weeks back that the future of work lies in understanding work as 'pleasure in the exercise of our energies', one reader commented that 'these discussions have little meaning when you are poor or dispossessed' and that 'KPIs were a little inconvenient, but having no food on the table is also an indicator that does not need to be measured'.

Yes, gnawing hunger, unpaid bills and the want of a roof over one's head would push 'the joy of work' off one's list of priorities. My call then was for us to resist the debilitation of KPIs and tortures of Taylorism to plumb instead for 'the joy of work'.

As the Master Chef contestants showed, spending your life doing what you are competent at pales into insignificance when set against the prospect of a life engrossed in one's passions. And that is a decision that every worker, elite profession or not, paid or otherwise, has it within their power to make.

Still, why should this be a concern of the unemployed?

Ann Allison writes in Precarious Japan of a 21st Century Japanese society where swathes of people are 'everyday refugees', so called because they are 'stranded inside their own country without access to a secure job, stable home, or normal life'. Would I be worrying about finding 'pleasure in the exercise of my energies' when monthly mortgage payments loom or last-chance utility bills stack up?

 

"Elizabeth Povinelli contends that it is among abandoned people, places and social groups (like the unemployed) that the potential for a 'social otherwise' — a reconfiguration of ways of living — can come into being."

 

Considering the vicissitudes of academic life, stability and job security are as alien to me as for many others who work in the higher education industry. As Allison puts it, 'it is not simply the working poor who get stricken by unease in facing basic existence'. Modelling in the report Australia's Future Workforce released by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia in 2015 suggested that about 40 per cent of the workforce in Australia will be replaced by computers (and robots) in the next ten to 25 years. In 1963, when automation first posed a threat to employees in factories, James Boggs argued that:

'The magnificent productive tools of our day are the result of the accumulated labours of all of us and not the exclusive property of any group or class ... [so] everyone, regardless of class, regardless of background, is entitled to the enjoyment of the fruits of that development, just as all men are entitled to warm themselves in the heat of the sun.'

Almost 50 years later in 2011, Elizabeth Povinelli contended in Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Capitalism that it is among abandoned people, places and social groups (like the unemployed) that the potential for a 'social otherwise' — a reconfiguration of ways of living — can come into being. Having been on the margins myself, I can tell you there is something about being at the end of the road that is immensely liberating.

Even so, to walk away from such cul-de-sacs able and flourishing we must sever our ability to labour in exchange for money from our intrinsic value as human beings and find joy in the exercise of our energies. And that, in the end, is why even those without paid work should also rethink why and how we work. Doing so is not a luxury reserved only for the employed but a vital turn towards the otherwise if we are all to find warmth in the heat of technology's shining star.

Do employers have an obligation to structure work for human satisfaction?

Currently in Australia the government's Innovation and Science Agenda has placed disruption at the top of many industry and institutional agendas. Panicked yet 'transfixed by change' governments, businesses and institutes now believe the best strategy is to foment and create disruption internally and survive external upheaval. Within such a context it is futile to argue that satisfied workers result in better products or services and more profitable businesses. Not least because if we keep using the same yardsticks, i.e. revenue, to weigh the value of work we will always be stuck in the paradigm of profit and loss.

So, although I would like there to be an onus on employers to structure work for human satisfaction, I suspect it is more a matter for individual determination what allows one to find joy from work. Reflecting on close to 35 years of working life in the manufacturing, advertising and higher education industries across Singapore, Indonesia and Australia, I have found four elements essential for me to derive satisfaction from my work: support, stability, autonomy and trust.

Only, rather than depend on my employers alone I've learnt to seek support, stability, autonomy and trust from family, friends, colleagues, place and communities too. And in doing so, I've only just realised I reconfigured my way of living and found a social otherwise. You might find challenge and excitement more conducive. Whatever the case I hope you find your 'social otherwise' too.

 


Susan LeongSusan Leong is Research Fellow with Curtin University in Western Australia, School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts. Her work has been published in Peril Magazine, Critical Asian Studies, New Media and Society and Thesis Eleven. Susan's research interests include digital media in Asia, internet sovereignty and banal precariousness.

 

Recent articles by Susan Leong.

The work of disobedience

Topic tags: Susan Leong, work


 

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Existing comments

Great care needs to be exercised when you encourage most people to 'Follow your bliss' as the late Joseph Campbell put it. There are some, like the two of you, who have the necessary combination of talent, education, support and luck who are able to do it. Sadly, many in our society, particularly those who live in areas such as Mt Druitt or Logan, who seem to have the dice loaded against them. Their opportunity may be to make a career as the local drug dealer. As the economy contracts and more jobs are exported, with the industries they served, to lower income countries, the prospects for those at the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder become fewer. I remember recently seeing a book advertised by a former corporate lawyer about how to change your career. She has made a new career by writing this book. I wonder if this work has changed anything for anyone? I think the future of work, real meaningful work, whereby you could support a family, buy a house and live a moderately decent life, as many ordinary people did in the 1960s on one wage, are long gone.
Edward Fido | 27 June 2017


“Elizabeth Povinelli contended in Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Capitalism that it is among abandoned people, places and social groups (like the unemployed) that the potential for a 'social otherwise' — a reconfiguration of ways of living — can come into being.” Thanks to a citation such as the above, followed by free browsing on YouTube, Wikipedia and other Internet resources, people who have never heard of Povinelli, the Anthropocene, immanent ontology or social imaginaries can have access to information that is both interesting and useful. Now, if Susan Leong, who seems to have a passion for education, could put together some lessons on critical theory in a MOOC, a descendant of the mechanics institutes of old? I’m sure the late working class warrior James Boggs would agree that this enabling of consciousness would be a good thing, not just for people who could be set on a path that takes them to the atheistic left but even for Christians who want to apply theology through new categories of observation.
Roy Chen Yee | 27 June 2017


"The one thing they cannot take from you is education": my grandmother's wise words to her children. In other words, skill was something essential that workers brought to the table. But even that is now disappearing owing to the development of automation in areas not before seen. If jobs are not available, why get educated? If no-one is working, who will buy the produce? Meanwhile, capital accrues to the "owners" and we are seeing both depressed wages and the elimination of labour altogether from industry and service. So the key for me in this essay is "James Boggs argued that: 'The magnificent productive tools of our day are the result of the accumulated labours of all of us and not the exclusive property of any group or class ... [so] everyone, regardless of class, regardless of background, is entitled to the enjoyment of the fruits of that development, just as all men are entitled to warm themselves in the heat of the sun.'". This is the case for a universal income and for taxation on each item of automatic equipment. Such an income would allow us to pursue our passions.
Peter Horan | 28 June 2017


Further to my earlier: we already tax performance and use of artistic work and it is called a royalty.
Peter Horan | 28 June 2017


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