More than my job’s worth
I’ve been thinking about jobs lately. For a while I even thought I should try to get one, freelance writing work having dwindled so dramatically. Admittedly, opportunities to work as a newsletter editor abound. Each that I have seen, however, pays precisely nothing. How droll, that when I am at last presented with an opportunity to use the longest word in the English dictionary, it is to describe the trade to which I have devoted half my working life, in conceding that the job of editor has succumbed to floccinaucinihilipilification.
But, enough levity.
This consideration of work coincided with the chance to make a voluntary contribution at my local high school, conducting pretend interviews with 16 year olds to prepare them for the glare of scrutiny that would be directed at them by real-world, people-filtering recruitment panels. I chatted with 10 or 12 young students, each with a delightfully fresh, uncomplicated CV, through a six hour period. To be honest, I had expected pro-forma tedium. Instead I found myself inspired and uplifted by the sparky young people I had the good fortune to meet; by their energy, imagination, determination and open-mindedness.
Fossil-fuelled career paths
Still, I left with a background niggle that so many had already set their minds on specific paths to follow — no doubt in line with suggestions and encouragement from well-meaning teachers and advisors.
Some of their plans were quite sensible. Some of them seemed less so, since the economic unravelling will quite possibly have extinguished those lines of work by the time these kids have done their A levels. But all of them depended on the continuation of the fossil-fuelled, industrial economy to some extent or other.
It struck me that it would be fun and worthwhile to turn some of these lively, receptive minds to the thorny issue of transition — the transition that they will all have to make to some degree — to a lower energy, lower input, less material lifestyle, away from jobs for life and pensions and state healthcare and towards self-directed, resilient, localised livelihoods.
“Excellent!” I thought. “I have a new career path for myself: as a careers advisor. Perhaps not a run-of-the-mill careers advisor, admittedly, but I guess I could do standard stuff if needed. Now to go and grab that NVQ and get on with the matter.”
Ah, not so fast, said the world of careers. The career of Careers Advisor is a Very Important Career Indeed and must be underpinned by a number of Very Serious Qualifications. You can start with the NVQ Level 3 award, which allows you to “support clients to overcome barriers to learning and work” — whatever that means. Complete Level 4 and you can deliver actual career information and advice, in certain contexts.
But to be accorded a gilt-edged entry on the UK national register of careers advisors you must do the Level 6 Diploma in Career Guidance and Development (I didn’t work out what happened to Level 5), which may or may not be equivalent to the national Qualification in Careers Guidance (QCG), which appears to be equivalent to QCF Level 7 (on a national framework for comparing qualifications that is supposed to make things simpler) (but this is apparently QCF Level 11 in Scotland, mind-bogglingly). Note that I failed to make full sense of any of this and I’ve probably got most of it wrong, so none of the above is in any way to be taken as Careers Advice careers advice.
Anyway, the point is that only with some Top Banana Qualification will you be allowed to call yourself a proper careers advisor, by which time you will have invested at least two years of your life and £2000 for the privilege, possibly twice as much. And of course, you’ll have been so profoundly mentally railroaded by endless all-nighters writing essays on the theory of careers advising, the history of careers, the critically important social role of careers, and so on, that by the time you arrive at your first unsupervised consultation it’ll be all you can do to flick open the Official Guide to Official Career Paths as approved by H.M Government, point a wizened, bony finger at the section entitled “Young People with a Propensity for Engineering” and suggest, over your half-moon glasses, with an earnestness reserved for a scene in an E. M. Forster novel, that professions in the geological exploration sector are really most desirably remunerated.
I had a phone call booked with a Professor of Careers Advice Studies (or similar) to discuss my options. As it loomed, I sensed mild yet potentially irrepressible feelings of hysteria rising in my chest. I politely cancelled the call, went for a walk, and instead had a chat with a squirrel that was running along a branch. “What career path took you to this place?” I asked the squirrel. “What qualifications did you need? You look happy and at peace running along your branch in search of nuts but have you thought about your retirement options?”
The hysteria bubbled out of me in a happy rivulet of relief and liberation, and I even decided to try to be a squirrel for a bit (ground-based, two-legged, of course), running the length of the field until I was breathless with exertion (and slightly maniacal giggling). On return to my desk I deleted all careers advice bookmarks on my web browser, opened a fresh page in my notepad and decided to think again.
But the issue of work and careers has not gone away. For one thing, it has long bugged me (in fact I wrote about it in my most soul-bearing post here) that most of the useful, constructive, nourishing actions that we do to help each other, our ecosystems, our atmosphere and our communities are done in our spare time, or with spare resources; in other words, they are all funded, in one way or other, as a sideline or marginal activity out of surpluses from the profits extracted from the destructive, global, industrial economy.
So community transition initiatives, like the one in which I was heavily involved for several years in the Herefordshire village of Wigmore, are largely implemented — with major investments of time and effort — by volunteers, for no money, either in addition to and as a secondary activity to their paid work (in the destructive, global, industrial economy), or in their retirement, itself funded out of the dividends from holdings in oil and mining companies or other beneficiaries of the destructive, global, industrial economy.
Campaigns to stop chopping down rain forests or protect bluefin tuna are undertaken by charities thanks only to voluntary contributions from caring people who donate from the leftovers of their monthly wage (usually earned as a result of working in the destructive, global, industrial economy). Community and family work undertaken by social workers is paid for from state coffers, which rely on tax revenues from corporations operating in, you guessed it. And so on.
What really irked me when I wrote that post was the fact that this made the eco-projects and community schemes dependent adjuncts to the business of destruction; little more than guilt-offsetting schemes that maybe even did more harm than good, by allowing us to feel okay about continuing with our careers in the global enterprise of death.
Two years having passed, I find myself now approaching this bothersome situation from the other side of the hedge.
What’s bugging me today is that, with the exception of a relatively small number of cooperatively run, environmentally focussed food- or craft-based enterprises, there is little opportunity to duck out of that global enterprise of death to pursue work that does simultaneously sustain worker, community and planet. Actually it is worse than that: if you are determined to make such a living, you will find that everything is pitted against you, ranging from subsidies for environmentally harmful competitors to disproportionate penalties for small-scale operations to planning restrictions and other bureaucratic hurdles.
This is not the time to outline the forces that converged to create this situation, and which prevail; the same, pernicious forces which, for example, bulldoze tribal peoples (living abundant lives on unmapped territories beyond the reach of property ownership laws and without the need for money) off their land and into city slums. We are familiar with these forces, which are omnipresent and, it seems, omnipotent.
But it is worth remembering that there’s no practical, material reason why it shouldn’t be straightforward to make such a living. In fact there are plenty of precedents for doing so, not least of course the life-ways that those pre-bulldozed tribal peoples were following for several thousand years before our culture came along and trashed them.
So, where earlier I was inclined to write off the employment situation as just another saddening symptom of those enormous and well-documented flaws of the global, capitalist, fossil-fuelled, debt-based, expansionist, extractive economy, the outcomes of which we witness daily as they magnify and thrash their way across the living fabric of the planet like the writhing tails of maddened dragons, today I feel that to settle for such analysis is an inadequate response.
While it is important to campaign against the unbridled power of the corporations, to flag up the complicity of governments, to analyse the nature of capitalism and the corporatocracy, of hegemony and hedge funds, and to identify our own part in it all with our cars and smartphones and compulsive accumulation, leaving the spotlight bouncing hither and thither between those aspects misses the opportunity to step back and cast a broader beam; in other words, it misses the wood for the trees.
The legalities and intricacies of property ownership, politics, corporate law, labour law and economics, after all, are not immutable truths. They are not mountains. They are human constructs, abstractions, dreams come true. You cannot see them from space.
They do feel real, it’s true — not least because the process of being educated, trained and funnelled along the paths of careers, culture and competitive consumption affects us very deeply. Some of us may fight against the generalised outcomes, because we don’t like what we see happening on the outside; but it can be hard for us to see what is happening on the inside; and extremely hard to fight against our own occupation — and occupations.
I understand more each day the meaning and depth of one of my favourite quotes, from Upton Sinclair, that it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
Nonetheless, these constructs — job title, status, qualifications, power hierarchies, concepts of ownership and wealth — are, really, not real. The minute they dissolve, so will our ideas about how they have framed our identity. And so too will our need to establish exactly which bit of what concept affects what outcome the most. Let’s pretend none of them exists, for a few minutes.
To any intractable question, my grandfather used to quip that the answer lies in the infirmary (instead of in the affirmative).
I suspect this time that the answer might lie in the absurdity.
Stay for a moment in the world where our systems and laws and profit imperatives have fallen into the hazy background. Now isn’t it even more absurd, I mean ludicrously, preposterously and unacceptably absurd, that the constructive things we do, those that come naturally to us and that serve living beings well, don’t pay; and yet the things we do get paid for are neither good for us nor for other living things, and are often also not how we would choose to spend our time at all? That the jobs we do for a living require us to promote the very destruction we are working to ameliorate in our free time, and in so doing damage not only life and planet but also our inner integrity, our hearts and souls?
That we silently agree to carry on with this set-up, and defend it, even to ourselves?
Why and how does this absurdity prevail?
Allow me a brief diversion. I’d like to draw (ironically) on insights from a job I once had — as a nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Yes, I know. Look, it kept me in noodles and brain food for a while, okay?
While there I gained quite an understanding of the way in which certain, susceptible nucleii of certain atoms line up with a background magnetic field, and how, with an applied impulse of additional electromagnetic energy, they can be made to ‘flip’ to the opposite, higher energy-state orientation so that they are diametrically opposed to the background field, where they linger for a short time after the energy impulse is withdrawn, before falling back to their original positions.
I suggest that in our working lives, we are all suffering a prolonged case of magnetic inversion. What we want to do is relax back, to line up with the default background field. But we can’t, because we are collectively hooked on the energy fixes that keep us up there; the goodies from the global economy upon which we have come to believe we depend (including an extravagant surfeit of real, actual energy). But we feel the strain: an uncomfortable inner conflict between the values and persona we must adopt in our working lives and those that are truly us at home.
And so, like the magnetic nucleii, when left to our own devices, we realign with the background field and rediscover the pleasure, drive and sense of fulfillment that inspires us to do those unpaid, slower, giving, reconnecting, vivid, life-restoring things.
The point I am getting to is that the work of destruction requires people to do it. But it does not come naturally: we only do it because we are paid to do it. And the system only pays us to do it because of an aberration in its operating principles, in the terms and conditions of society, all of which are nothing more than a shared web of belief.
Furthermore, if we didn’t do the work of destruction, it wouldn’t get done.
Imagine what might have happened at the recent, peaceful protest (which is undergoing police eviction as I write) against the Bexhill to Hastings link road — the first of 190 new, ill-considered roads planned by the current government — if those who had turned up to protect the wild nature that will be exterminated, the 400 year old oak trees, the soils and mosses and landscape and birdsong, the complex, moist, diverse and misty beauty of it all, were paid to do so, because it was important work, and were provided with riot shields, batons and pepper spray to fend off anyone who might want to destroy such sacred bounty.
And if the ones who were of a mind to pave the way for thousands more polluting vehicles to thunder across the land by laying down millions of tons of tarmac could only do so if they had to muster the materials, the machinery and the labour from their spare time and savings and proceeds from car boot sales to make it happen. I suspect an alternative transport solution would be found, or none at all, and the trees and plants and fungi and birds would live.
It’s an over-simplification, of course. But still, there is no law of physics that says we can’t invert the conditions that determine what we get paid for and why, and how.
By considering our planetary conundrum from the point of view of jobs, we have on one hand a point of interest that surely appeals to every college-leaver, parent and in fact every adult of working age in an industrialised economy (with the exception of a handful of irrelevant ones — about 1% of the population I believe); and on the other hand a view of a modus operandi that could, with the right shift in operating principles, together with a following wind, be allowed to flip into its more natural, diametric opposite.
The interesting thing here is that a system reset is inevitable (and in some places already underway), not least because the existing terms and conditions of society rely on an abundant supply of cheap energy which, alongside the many other non-renewable commodities upon which the industrial economy depends, is coming to its natural end.
Careers might not be all they’re cracked up to be, and jobs are thin on the ground, yet there is still a vast amount of critically important work to be done, and that we know can be done: restorative, relocalising, rewilding work; work rebuilding our soils, re-engineering our energy systems, rehabilitating the biosphere and reintegrating ourselves back into diverse and healthy ecosystems.
It’s self-evident that, as non-renewable stocks decline, the advantage will move to people and organisations who build renewable stocks and who capture and convert renewable flows of energy. So there will be a good return on investment in this work.
I sense so much opportunity here that I am resolved to pursue the thinking further; and even to allow it to upholster the skeleton of a project idea that has been beckoning for some time. I will return with more information soon.
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.