Reimagining work is a project for the unemployed, too

Jun 26, 2017 by

Susan Leong –

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.

Source: Reimagining work is a project for the unemployed, too – Eureka Street

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