Surviving the post-employment economy
The author argues that in the new economy, it’s people, not skills or majors, that have lost value.
A lawyer. A computer scientist. A military analyst. A teacher.
What do these people have in common? They are trained professionals who cannot find full-time jobs. Since 2008, they have been tenuously employed – working one-year contracts, consulting on the side, hustling to survive. They spent thousands on undergraduate and graduate training to avoid that hustle. They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.
Unemployed graduates are told that their predicament is their own fault. They should have chosen a more “practical” major, like science or engineering, and stayed away from the fickle and loathsome humanities. The reality is that, in the “jobless recovery”, nearly every sector of the economy has been decimated. Companies have turned permanent jobs into contingency labour, and entry-level positions into unpaid internships.
Changing your major will not change a broken economy.
In the United States, nine percent of computer science graduates are unemployed, and 14.7 percent of those who hold degrees in information systems have no job. Graduates with degrees in STEM – science, technology, engineering and medicine – are facing record joblessness, with unemployment at more than twice pre-recession levels. The job market for law degree holders continues to erode, with only 55 percent of 2011 law graduates in full-time jobs. Even in the military, that behemoth of the national budget, positions are being eliminated or becoming contingent due to the sequester.
It is not skills or majors that are being devalued. It is people.
Academics face particular derision for their choice of profession. “You got a PhD – what did you expect?” they are told when they note that 76 percent of professors work without job security, usually for poverty wages.
It is true that the academic job market has been terrible for decades. But until 2008, PhDs could have expected more. Since 2009, most disciplines have lost roughly 40 percent of their positions, while the backlog of qualified candidates continues to grow. Most PhDs work as adjunct faculty or in the new euphemistic sectors of high-brow impoverishment: “non-stipendiary fellow“, “special assistant professor” or “voluntary development opportunity“.
Survival is not only a matter of money, it is a matter of mentality – of not mistaking bad luck for bad character, of not mistaking lost opportunities for opportunities that were never really there.
Best of bad options
Despite the dire employment conditions of higher education, young people continue to enrol in graduate school. Detractors roll their eyes: Why would a young person spend years earning a degree of questionable value? Why not “go get a job”? To which the 20-something laughs, having graduated into an economy where peers spend years vainly looking for a job, finding only unpaid internships or low-wage contingency labour, often while living at home. A funded graduate programme, with health insurance, seems a welcome escape.
“But it is not just about your current earnings,” the detractor continues, “It is about the wages you lose while in the programme.” To which the 30-something, having spent their adult life in an economy of stagnant wages and eroding opportunities, takes the 20-something aside, and explains that this is a maxim they, too, were told, but from which they never benefitted. They tell the 20-something what they already know: It is hard to plan for what is already gone.
We live in the tunnel at the end of the light.
If you are 35 or younger – and quite often, older – the advice of the old economy does not apply to you. You live in the post-employment economy, where corporations have decided not to pay people. Profits are still high. The money is still there. But not for you. You will work without a pay rise, benefits, or job security. Survival is now a laudable aspiration.
Higher education is merely a symptom of a broader economic disease. As universities boast record endowments and spend millions on lavish infrastructure, administrators justify poor treatment of faculty, or lecturers, by noting that they: 1) “choose” to work for poverty wages, and 2) picked specialisations that give them limited “market value” – ignoring, of course, that almost no one is valued in this market, save those who are reaping its greatest profits.
The college major debate – in which “skill” is increasingly redefined as a specific corporate contribution – extends this inequity to the undergraduate level, defining as worthless, both the student’s field of study and the person teaching it. But when worthlessness is determined by the people handing out – or withholding – monetary worth, we have cause for reassessment.
Failure of the system
It is easy to decry a broken system. It is harder to figure out how to live in it.
What must be made clear is that this is not a crisis of individual choices. It is a systemic failure – within higher education and beyond. It is a crisis of managed expectations – expectations of what kind of job is “normal”, what kind of treatment is to be tolerated, and what level of sacrifice is reasonable.
When survival is touted as an aspiration, sacrifice becomes a virtue. But a hero is not a person who suffers. A suffering person is a person who suffers.
If you suffer in the proper way – silently, or with proclaimed fealty to institutions – then you are a hard worker “paying your dues”. If you suffer in a way that shows your pain, that breaks your silence, then you are a complainer – and you are said to deserve your fate.
But no worker deserves to suffer. To compound the suffering of material deprivation with rationalisations for its warrant is not only cruel to the individual, but gives exploiters moral licence to prey.
Individuals internalise the economy’s failure, as a media chorus excoriates them over what they should have done differently. They jump to meet shifting goalposts; they express gratitude for their own mistreatment: their unpaid labour, their debt-backed devotion, their investment in a future that never arrives.
And when it does not arrive, and they wonder why, they are told they were stupid to expect it. They stop talking, because humiliation is not a bargaining chip. Humiliation is a price you pay in silence – and with silence.
People can always make choices. But the choices of today’s workers are increasingly limited. Survival is not only a matter of money, it is a matter of mentality – of not mistaking bad luck for bad character, of not mistaking lost opportunities for opportunities that were never really there.
You are not your job. But you are how you treat people.
So what can you do? You can work your hardest and do your best. You can organise and push for collective change. You can hustle and scrounge and play the odds.
But when you fall, know that millions are falling with you. Know that it is, to a large extent, out of your hands. And when you see someone else falling, reach out your hands to catch them.
Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.