Work and Identity

Nothing fills us with greater dread and yet, if it’s good, nothing fills us with more satisfaction. Bob Black called for its abolition. There is no doubt that the role work plays in our lives has changed. It is still immensely important for obvious reasons, but somehow we are becoming detached from our job titles. It should be the most important thing in our lives – it (in theory) allows us to survive, it creates social and friendship bonds, and many even meet our life partners in the workplace.  The job-for-life that was so prevalent a generation or more ago, like the dodo or the betamax, is a footnote in history. The internet has had a profound effect too on the way we both seek and execute it. A long drawn out recession and the subsequent mass-unemployment has taken the level of work and the satisfaction we get from it, to new lows.
The Spanish have two forms for the verb ‘to be’ – a temporary and a permanent form depending on the situation. It is possible to say “soy camerero” or “estoy de camerero”. The former, tells us that is someone’s job – a waiter, while the latter tells us that is what they are currently doing but is not their vocation in life. It is much better than the English uniform ‘to be’, which always necessitates the conjunction of rebuttal: “I am a waiter, but….”, which invokes a note of shame, regret or inability.
In the quest for work, zero-hour contracts, freelance positions and temporary positions have become an accepted fact in the labour market and has distorted in some sense of who we are as workers, as producers of things.  Because such instability (or ‘diversity’) exists in job seeking, it should mean that finding work is easier than ever, yet the contrary remains. With things like perks, benefits and even training being cut in order to maintain those huge profit margins, companies are shooting themselves in the foot. A workforce that is offered very little in the way of remuneration will of course show very little in the way of loyalty and quality inevitably suffers.

Education as a product

Clearly the biggest winner in this transient workplace, is the education sector. Once a place of self-improvement and seat of learning, educational establishments have become little more than dream factories, offering potential ‘customers’ (because that’s what they are now) a chance to break into the competitive industry of their wildest dreams. Universities and H.E. institutions offer varying degrees of quality in delivery and pastoral care, but one thing that connects them all: debt. Apart from a shiny certificate that is handed out on completion, the only certainty at the end of the course is the debt that needs to be paid back. Because of this, arts and humanities subjects are suffering, with many would-be students opting to take a safer route into the working world by studying something more prosaic – like Business or Marketing.

The death of the creative industries

Yet, ironically, work in the creative industries is a hard slog that pays little – and those returns are diminishing. Production has become almost value-less due to the proliferation of digital formats. Music has been completely transformed, and illegal downloads and social platforms having killed off any notion of making money from selling music, except for those with the backing of enormous marketing machines. Publishing is struggling to cope with the rise of Amazon and its prodigy, the Kindle. Journalism is in crisis, not knowing how to reverse the trend of free newspapers and free internet content –  and now Twitter is doing for traditional publications and paid journalism, even paid hacks are writing about everyone becoming journalists. Conversely, as fewer jobs (and dwindling rates of pay, of course) become available in these sectors the clamour to break into these types of jobs increases – creating an unending queue of hopefuls ready to work for nothing in order to get that vital break.

Devaluation of labour

Creative industries have also spawned the internship, a relatively new concept on these shores, when ‘work experience’ used to be the norm – this of course stems from apprenticeships which have been around for a few hundred years. While internships are supposed to help someone learn a skill or craft, all too often the apprentice ends ups picking up the slack. As a staggeringly effective way to manipulate people, the concept of free employment has been taken up by employers in other industries, in position where no skill(s) is necessarily learned. This has in some way led to an under-valuing of a worker’s time and effort and clearly devalued the notion of paid employment.
The natural progression of this has resulted in work placement schemes for the unemployed, where instead of being paid/supported while you looked for work, you are given a job – usually in a shop – whether you liked it or not. Some call it slavery and others ‘earning your keep’.  it comes as no surprise to find that wages and salaries have been stagnating for the past decade – even in the supposed ‘good times’ – these are ‘bad times’, if you needed telling. The two ideas are certainly not separate phenomena. They are inextricably linked to the devaluing of work and of production by the individual – and in many ways we have come round to the ways of thinking that existed at the birth of the industrial age – that employers need not give workers rights, just as the government need not protect the workforce. Hard-earned employment rights gained from that epoch have been slowly chipped away in the name of wealth creation as labour supply outstrips demand.

The end of retirement

Pensions are becoming an archaic idea for many workers, and with it goes notions of retirement. I expect that by the time I retire, I won’t actually be retiring at all – the age of retirement is due to increase to 67 by 2028, and that age is likely to increase in the following years and decades as the state struggles with the sheer volume of over-65’s. The idea of leisure time in the autumn of one’s years will become a luxury for the well-off only. What will that mean for the worker of ‘the grey employment market’? Can you imagine labourers, teachers and nurses still able to do their jobs well into their 70s? The cult of youth is not merely confined to the news-stand images of glossies, and it has become steadily more emphasized in the labour market over the past 40 years too, clearly other discriminating factors, such as gender or race also comes into play. The Age Discrimination Act has become part of employment legislation over the past few years, yet it is for the most part, a token gesture that is unlikely to stop employers taking younger staff and shunning those who they think might be past their peak.
It’s hard to imagine that those who have scraped by, paying rent and having the opportunity to save very little throughout their working careers will have any choice but to continue their entrepreneurship well into seventies – should they live that long;  even those on state pensions today, it is worth noting, live in poverty. With social welfare and free social provision becoming a thing of the past, it’s already beginning to feel like the world is doing all it can to marginalise the poor. How septuagenerians and octogenerians will continue to put in a shift in the future remains to be seen – certainly there will have to be a huge paradigm shift in the way society views the elderly and their use to society. As we retire the idea of retirement, we also retire the idea of choice – having a career has now become compulsory.

The ubiquitous career

Look at any employment vacancies – either on the internet or by traditional means – and you will see that idea borne out. Bar and cleaning jobs that offer ‘training’ and ‘chances of career progression’, in jobs that many consider to be just that – jobs, not careers. While  most have the acumen to see through the hyperbole and bluster of language used in the world of business, this very language sets out a stall with which we are chained to. It’s no longer enough just to rock up to work and put in a shift. Now we have to be seen to be making a difference – and all for jobs that offer us very little in the way of satisfaction or financial return.
So the idea of ‘working to live’ rather than ‘living to work’ is now becoming a redundant notion. With  the daily onslaught of advertising and marketing we’re exposed to each day we are persuaded into buying things that we don’t necessarily need, as well as the never-ending lists of things we do need and now there are things that were free but might not be any longer available – we are now on course to be a society where we labour until we drop, simply because consumption has become in many ways far more important than production.
As conservative and neo-liberal governments gradually dismantle the public sector and sell it off into private hands, the theories of Marx and a ‘social collective’ of workers begins to look increasingly archaic. We are now faced with the prospect of the worker as a collection of skills and commodities – much like Jay-Z or the Beckhams with their portfolio(s) of products. Of course, the average Joe or Josephine does not have a range of perfumes or a lifestyle and leisure range; but we are not now expected to be tied to one skill our whole life as the pace of technology makes one set of skills redundant and challenges the worker to learn others.
In the last 150 years the mechanisation of society has pervaded all elements of our life both working and social. Mass production has brought us thus far: In our current modes and approaches it seems the mechanisation of humanity is not far from completion too.
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