In the Guardian, as part of the “graduate without a future” series:
“But at a personal level, what should a kid do? One answer I’ve explored with my students is emigration. There are in fact plenty of jobs for British graduates in the Far East and in Latin America, where British degrees are in demand. As always, emigration carries a high personal human cost – loss of connection with family and friends, the risk that life may move on and you may not be able to return. Since I teach a rarified subject – social theory – I put the issue to my own students like this: do you care so much about your work that you would abandon home? Increasingly, many are willing.
A less drastic answer involves dealing with “flexible” labour markets – “flexible” means short-term work with no job security and few prospects for advancement; if the current government has its way and employers are able to fire on a whim, labour will become even more flexible on these terms. One way my students deal with this is to make unstable day jobs tolerable by night work of a more sustained, personally meaningful kind, like writing a book or doing voluntary service. This, however, is a solution only for highly motivated, inner-driven kids, and it requires a thick psychological hide; daytime stress, insecurity and depression can dislodge the night anchor.
Our masters celebrate the entrepreneur, and for a few of my students the startup is an option so long as they do not fear failure. About 60% of small businesses fail in their first year, and 76%-80% in three years, principally for lack of capital. I’ve students of Kant who have set up a co-operative food network, and a Hegel student who has organised a lesbian dating service (what would The Master say?); better, they think, to fail than to regret – but this is no long-term recipe for a whole generation. What galls me about the current situation is that a structural problem of capitalism has been dumped into the lives of young people as their personal problem; even though emigration, the night anchor, and the startup can help some, the system remains intact.”
What he describes here is a trend he himself, along with Zygmunt Bauman, have analyzed for the past 20 years: the idea that system creates contradictions and conundra that have to be solved by individuals with no social assistance. No more salvation by society. Be your own entrepreneur, uproot and leave, or embrace the flexible and thoroughly precarized lifestyle. Of course, one can try any of these (although they do take a bit of social privilege to start with, in terms of economic, social or cultural capital; the underprivileged are already fully precarized with no access to capital to start a business, no means of easy – and legal – emigration). These solutions are the individualized decisions to be made when one lives in the risk society. One is one’s own business project.
To extend on Sennett’s points, I think precarized individualization is what is really going on with the “I’m busy” trend from the privileged corners that has been much discussed after the publication of this article:
“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”
Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”
Being busy and keeping busy, besides being a puritan injunction against shiftlessness, has more to do with continuously working on one’s own self-project (and continuous improvement is a corporate mantra foisted upon a lot of organizations, public and private, as a way of increasing administrative bloat and control as well as shaking the system permanently and generating greater insecurity).
While you’re not busy, someone might be getting a new certificate in the latest social networking platform or ICT. And the more insecure and precarized life is, the busier one must look (without looking tired, hence the increase in plastic surgery for the corporate class, men and women). And as the article mentions, keeping busy is applied to children as well. One has to fill resumes with truckloads of extra-curricular activities, especially now that one might compete with a lot of other students with similar degrees.
And since one must always make a virtue of a necessity, the busyness of Americans is heralded as a mark of superiority over countries with more paid vacations (even less vacation does not translate into greater productivity).
To claim to be busy then is a claim that one is constantly working on oneself as productive project.
Back to Sennett, what solutions does he advocate?
- Apprenticeships (real ones, not the ever-expanding unpaid internships)… real ones
- Getting rid of the idea (and practice) that universities should be just vocational centers (a pet peeve of mine):
“Perhaps surprisingly in this regard, I’d like to see universities stop preparing young people for the work world, at least as they now attempt to do. Part of the problem is misplaced specificity: if you have a BA in hotel catering management and there are no jobs for hotel caterers you are, as it were, in the soup. Moreover, universities have expanded massively the numbers of students taking supposedly practical courses, making the problem of scarcity only worse; this year in Britain thousands of students will graduate with MBA’s to then compete for a relatively scant number of jobs. We would do much better to provide young people with intellectual challenge and depth – which is what universities are properly about. The number of jobs would not thereby increase; the integrity of the academic enterprise would.”
A-bloody-men to that.
Of course, this is not the direction of the increasingly corporate-driven higher education where there is a growing “get them in and out quickly with a certificate” trend, thanks to the growing ranks of administrators with no understanding of education.
“If young people today prove a lost generation, it is only because government, business and academia have failed them. There are remedies to prevent this failure, but Britain has radically to revise its beliefs and labour practices to take this medicine. So far, instead, we’ve made finding one’s place in the work world a personal problem.”
And one that they are expected to solve on their own, in the name of personal responsibility.