Archive | September, 2014

On Labor Day

1 Sep

Somehow the summer came and went, I got nothing written or revised (not on this blog, not in my professional life), and tomorrow I start a new full-time job, my first in over three years. I’ve written a little bit in informal comments on Facebook about my life as an adjunct, but I was inspired to say more after reading Robert Reich’s post this morning. I don’t know how to link to a Facebook post, but the operative quotations are these: “The official unemployment rate is 6.2 percent but if you include everyone working part-time who’d rather be in full-time jobs, and all those too discouraged even to look for work, the real rate is closer to 12.5 percent… A higher proportion of jobs are part-time, temporary, contract, or otherwise with unpredictable wages and hours than at any time on record.” I’ve been through all that personally the last three years. So I am setting this down in public as a kind of baseline post as I begin the next chapter in my career – an academic career at this point, having working in non-profits and museums for the first 16 or so years of my professional career, followed by five years of academic employment, with some consulting. Then three years of part-time research, adjunct positions, and summer school, while looking for something full-time in my field.

Here are my two operative facts and figures: In all that time, I tried to keep my employment record with no conspicuous holes or gaps, I applied for over one hundred positions, and I managed to only have 1-2 months on unemployment. The rest of the time I had some form of underemployment – not much money coming in, no health insurance (for 38 months), and no position that lasted longer than an academic year. I didn’t go on food stamps, qualified for the new Medicaid under Obamacare (though I ended up then making just too much money by the time I had to submit the application), and got to the point where if I hadn’t found something full-time in the last application cycle, I’d have had to have changed careers, or taught high school full-time. Over the last four years I applied for 131 full-time positions in universities, museums, and non-profits. I got rejected 130 times. And while I can’t say I have empirical proof that if you never give up you will eventually get something, I can say that had I given up at any point along the way, instead of coming back week in and week out, then I would have lost for sure. In the end it was not just persistence: I learned from my mistakes and shortcomings, I adjusted my search accordingly, re-worked my application materials and my interviewing skills. Though luck undoubtedly played a role, it was a combination of persistence and adaptability that set the stage. And in the end, I ended up with a wonderful position that offers all that I want, in a location where I want to be – I did not have to “settle” at all. It’s even a union position. And no, I did not know anyone on the hiring committee; it was a clean search. I am a statistic in so many groups: underemployed, overqualified academic, long-term without a position or health insurance, and this economy is not kind of any of these. There aren’t even enough positions for people in my situation, so we even can’t all be “lucky” (the worst I heard about was a job that attracted 450 applicants). I’m glad I ended up in the right column of the statistics, but I have many friends and colleagues who have not, and this Labor Day I hope they find subsistence and fulfillment in whatever field they end up in. These are bleak times. Not only are “good” jobs falling by the wayside (see Reich’s columns), but meaningful jobs that are tenable are becoming rarer still.

I heard a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman on NPR this afternoon. I find him naive in the extreme – nowhere does he attribute any of these changes to the structure of the job market to forces like global consumer capitalism, the calculated ruthlessness of the ‘free’ market and its protectors, or the pressure of widening economic inequality. He suggests that entrepreneurship is going to be a vital skill for building a career, which suggests an extreme survival-of-the-fittest-go-getters, but also that higher education itself may go the way of the newspaper because the investment is getting larger but the preparation for the job market is even less certain. (He says this, without any examination of the question whether the purpose of higher education should be employment training, what it means to have an uninformed populace voting (or not) in a democracy, or the fact that we can’t all start global industries on our laptops and be hugely successful; someone is going to have to have the funds to purchase all the goods and have the money to invest. At least Jaron Lanier points out that if we minimize the number of professional jobs that pay a living or middle-class wage, we won’t have enough consumers with the disposable income to buy all the products that consumer capitalism has to sell to stay afloat. All of these “thinkers” and “futurists” fall into the new unquestioned belief of the age which is that the purpose of higher education is job readiness, and learning “just enough” to get a job and compete in the global marketplace, or to be an “innovator” (for the sake of innovation, or making money, or making things), which is how MOOCs will replace humanistic teaching and learning, critical literacy skills. This fails to recognize the essential link in a democracy – which Jefferson realized – which is that the people are ignorant (not informed, and not knowing how to question the concepts that are fed to them). Otherwise they vote what they think is their short-term self-interest, and this perpetuates empires and global environmental destruction. Hell, I even heard a TED talk (again on NPR) yesterday in which the lecturer – a million-dollar TED awardee! – says we really need nothing more for our education than access to the Internet and a grandmother to encourage us. These people are trying to scuttle higher education, and retool education merely to be preparation for working in someone else’s factory, and the odd Jeff Bezos will come along here or there and ‘save’ us. Friedman doesn’t acknowledge the gutting of higher education is already taking place, with the shift over the last 20 years from 70% of college courses being taught by full-time profs, to two-thirds being taught by part-timers with no benefits and 1/6 to 1/4 of the salary.

But back to Labor Day itself. The other story that has slipped up on us is that Labor Day used to mark the end of the summer and back to school. My father, a tax accountant who never got more than two weeks vacation any year in his working life, used to take the last two weeks of August off religiously every year, and go back to work the day after Labor Day. School didn’t start until then, and the school year ran from September to June. But this year, even more than before, I noticed more and more school districts and universities are now beginning in August. The Ferguson, Missouri school district had to cancel the first days of classes in the middle of August, while on the East Coast, which starts later, it feels like New Jersey may be the last state in which the school year begins after Labor Day. Most colleges and universities start the week before now, too. Labor Day weekend used to be the end of summer vacation and was a big tourist weekend, but as one friend pointed out to me in New York this weekend, really everybody is back to school or work in August these days. So even the concept of ‘summer’ itself as time off has been taken away from the American worker and the American student. One of the most pernicious ways in which Americans have perpetuated their own oppression is in allowing themselves to have so little vacation time, less than any other country. And that’s for people with paid vacation. Many American workers don’t even get that anymore. So instead of Labor Day marking the psychological end of summer, even if it ever did honor the American worker, it now is just another Monday holiday. And many districts want to move to year-round school anyway, which would strip teaching – the last of the professions to over a reasonable annual leave policy in the U.S. – of its humane vacation policy. I am lucky my new job will be at a university that, for now, begins after Labor Day (which means that, in theory, I will still be able to attend the Montreal World Film Festival even though I could not afford to do so this year). But we’ll see how long that calendar survives the attempts to shorten summer and force the school year to bear more similarity to the working world, since that is all it is seen to be good for anymore, anyway.

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