Friday 8 April 2011

The Right to Useful Unemployment and University Life

There's no doubt that there's a degree of uncertainty bordering on panic setting into most UK universities at the moment: few would risk complacency wherever they find themselves in the pecking-order. That panic manifests itself in individuals' anxieties about their jobs, their futures, their families, the car and the mortgage. Scary stuff. 

But their response to this anxiety within many universities is perhaps more interesting. In the face of uncertainty, panic and anxiety, what do people do? They form committees! Within UK HE there must be hundreds of them, sitting in darkened rooms, mulling over "what we ought to do to respond", but none of them really having much success in steering concerted action. Above them sit the executive directors who will make the real decisions in the institution's best interests, and for whom the activities of the committees will be far less significant than anyone in the committees would like to think.

I'm wondering if the real problem is one of "underemployment" in universities, and this is making me think about connections between Ivan Illich's work on "useful unemployment" and the pathology of institutions and Ulrich Beck's work on risk. Beck describes the effects of under-employment as a condition of the Risk Society. Of this, he says:
"If one considers [the] consequences of the destandardization of working hours and work locations in their totality, then one can say that a transition is occurring in industrial society from a uniform system of lifelong full-time work organized in a single industrial location, with the radical alternative of unemployment, to a risk-fraught system of flexible, pluralized, decentralized underemployment, which, however, will possibly no longer raise the problem of unemployment in the sense of being completely without a paid job. In this system, unemployment in the guise of various forms of underemployment is 'integrated' into the employment system, but in exchange for a generalization of employment insecurity that was not known in the 'old' uniform full-employment system of industrial society."
I think what the workers in universities are experiencing is the onset of this "generalization of employment insecurity". But what is interesting is that this risk system has generative effects, and its effects seem to be self-perpetuating within the institution through the contributions of risk-exposed underemployed individuals in creating bureaucracy within institutions which itself contributes its own risks and (ironically) creates more employment.

This then beckons to Illich, who in arguing for the right to useful unemployment argues that the institutional barriers to creativity should be removed. Some of these barriers result from the anxiety of underemployment: too many useless meetings! How can this pathology be avoided? I think 'useful underemployment' may be the answer. Illlich's concern was always on the ways of life lived by people, and the forms of life they create. He says:
"instead of attempting to make feasible what is technologically possible, research for a viable future should concentrate on the institutions which foster human life and on rendering them possible with available means"

But the key to 'fostering human life' in a post-industrial world may be to work towards 'useful underemployment'. Useful unemployment deals with the well-being of the individual as well as their environment. Prayer might be one example (which must have been foremost in Illich's mind). Those practices which emancipate the mind so as to negate the damaging effects of risk not only on the individual, but on their institutional context. Heidegger's thoughts on 'dwelling' as a counterpart to 'enframing' also fit into this. Maybe keeping a blog and playing the piano do this for me! 

But, importantly for education, balancing employment with underemployment is a strategy that needs to be learnt. 

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