The future of work v. fulfillment

How about this suit——
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.
(Sylvia Plath, The Applicant)

In writing this blog post I am neglecting actual tasks I really need to be working on, including but not limited to the four hours of lecture content I need to catch up on – and I’m unsettlingly okay with this.

If I want to write for myself, my work needs to be gently shuffled downwards on my to-do list.

Instead of watching those hours of content or getting a head start on the essay I need done by Thursday, I’m sitting cross-legged on a squishy purple couch with a hazelnut latte and a calming playlist of thunderstorms and gentle rain, because self care. The building I’m in is an oddly angular space that appears inherently clinical in design, until someone at the last minute perhaps decided it was too much so, and threw down some sporadic carpet patterns and bright mismatched furniture to match the utopian promise of “university experience” – whatever that is. I like the effect, though.


Universities are strange systems.

On a Moodle site for one of my current subjects, a lecturer has posted articles questioning the relevance of university degrees in the workforce – and I’m so glad she did. Because it’s inherently dangerous to assume that the degrees we’re working so hard to acquire possess intrinsic value that will last into the future. In an arena where the power relationship between the ‘actual’ grown-up behind the lectern and the adult-child sitting opposite them swings somewhere between teacher/student and business/consumer like a pendulum, this sort of conversation is insanely complicated, yet vital. I think there’s some fear on both sides.

a.jpg


No matter how fiercely lit; staunch contracts break

(Sylvia Plath, Epitaph for Fire and Flower)

It’s worth unpacking the notion of ‘value’; I firmly believe that being educated is valuable in itself – but transforming that into a saleable commodity in a world driven by dynamic AI development and other industry changes is a different story. We shouldn’t be assuming the value of what we do, because no concrete skills – regardless at how hard our subject coordinators work at making assessments industry-relevant – are worth anything in an environment which does not possess the demand for those skills, and that’s very much out of our control.

I read a blog from Kris a month or so ago. He poses the question, “am I even supposed to enjoy what I do in the future?” and it’s fuelled my curiosity.

I think the short answer is no. Capitalism didn’t manifest to foster human intellectual development or passion. But it’s more complicated than that.


You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
(Sylvia Plath, The Applicant)

There’s an odd correlation between occupation and identity; we are what we do. When someone asks me who I am, I tell them about my work and what I study. I work in a shoe store. I tutor some high school students. I work as an editor. I write some articles. But most of us would define “life” as the activities we undertake outside of our hours of employment; in this sense I kind of don’t know who I am outside the confines of work aside from the categorical stuff:

student

Sagittarius

slytherin

Myer Briggs-certified introvert.

Although I am lucky to write as part of my employment, writing according to someone else’s word count, angle, SEO standards, Oxford-comma-accepting style guide (just no), and ideas is absolutely not the same as writing for myself. 

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Statistically, young adults studying at university in 2019 will have a plethora of different careers; is this going to create a discrepancy in identity compared to our elders?

Capitalism is a system which Karl Marx believed would collapse upon itself in his lifetime. He died in March 1883. Capitalism a system built on exploitation (which isn’t a necessarily a negative word by definition – depending on what you read – even though in our world it has negative connotations) and it ties 21st century humans into a lifetime of mundane labour in the same way a feudal society’s serfs were born into a lifetime of servitude in middle-aged Britain.

Capitalism: an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production, in which personal bling can be acquired through investment of capital and employment of peeps (Urban Dictionary)

It’s that simple. And we’re ants, crawling in the lines that the system created; its own user design path which serves its own automatic purpose. Capitalism is also a word we use somewhat messily; it silently dictates the design of human life and a lot of us accept this – but we don’t understand its mechanics and alternatives enough to do anything but operate alongside it. It’s institutionally embodied into our culture.

The system we’re trying to function in isn’t really designed to let us enjoy our work – but the fact that so many of us are still seeking that sort of fulfillment is hugely inspiring to me. To make time for fulfilling ventures, we need to step back from ‘work’, because the way that ‘work’ is designed doesn’t usually allow for genuine fulfillment. Even if we’re lucky enough to find a line of work that embraces our passions, that tends to be squashed under KPIs and efficiency/board room culture.

We’re spending an abundance of time learning how to cultivate ourselves as saleable commodities to potential employers who may not have even the remotest demand for our skills in the next decade. We are our work, and that I think is one of the strongest threats of our lifetimes.

 

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Claire is a freelance writer based in regional NSW. She has written for Twenty Something Humans, Junkee and Feminartsy. She is currently working on an honours project looking at narratives of domestic violence, and how they're framed in a variety of media.

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