Once upon a time, people labored for a single organization for an entire career. My father worked for BHEL from his twenties until he retired. Government servants in India and some other countries still follow my father’s footsteps, but increasingly, people shift careers several times before they retire.
The old compact was simple. In return for loyalty and labor, you received a degree of paternalistic care: a steady income, health care and other perks. That pattern repeated itself throughout one’s life:
One marriage, one family.
One job, one career.
One country, one nation.
It was a steady life. Somewhat boring and dreadfully oppressive, especially if you were a women, black or Dalit. Still, it came with a measure of stability, and human beings need stability. It’s not clear what value remains in the old system once that foundation breaks down. We will find out soon, for all three are in trouble. The first broke down a long time ago. Alternate ways of living are mushrooming. The second is breaking down right now. The cracks in the third are beginning to show.
The signs of decline are everywhere. Temporary work is fast replacing steady income. While it might seem like a libertarian paradise, few have the skills ensuring survival. Forget about the pursuit of happiness.
The free agent — or should I say micro-entrepreneur has no safeguards. There are the obvious losses: no health insurance, no steady pay check. There are other, less obvious and perhaps greater injuries as well: no community, no professional identity. Who are you after working seven temp jobs to put bread on the table?
If I were to think of the most destabilizing aspect of the new economic condition, it’s that we are bereft of a secure identity. Is there anyone who can answer the question “who am I?”
Life has been sliced into micro-threads. There’s one slice for the morning, when you’re working as an adjunct. There’s another slice for the afternoon when you’re working as a barista. There’s another slice for the evening when you see your children after a long day. There’s a smaller slice for the two weeks of the year when you get to see your family.
If life in the old system was a half-empty glass, we are now left with the sharp edged shards of a shattered glass.
The Learning Problem
I don’t think we can turn back the clock. Unions and governments aren’t about to restore a measure of sanity. I prefer to see the current situation as a learning challenge: how can modern societies learn and adapt and create new institutional structures that respond to our economic and political conditions?
While the atomized free agent plays into the hands of predatory capital, she has the opportunity to break free from the bonds of previous eras and reorganize along fresh new lines. That reorganization starts with the reorganization of education, for schools and colleges are the crucible of society as a whole.
If the promise of college education was a degree, a white collar lifestyle and a stable professional identity, the new promise should be a lifelong learning, an ecological lifestyle and an adaptive personal identity. Let me end this note with three ideas for keeping the new promise:
Disaggregate older degrees into discrete skills. Information and content are commodities.
Strengthen people to people mentoring and apprenticeship. The breakdown of trust is the biggest problem we face. Neither companies nor unions are providing that layer of trust; we have to create trust networks in which we engage as peers and citizens. The learning network has to be at the core of the new society.
Create platforms for binding people and small institutions together so that they can bargain for benefits as a network rather than as individually insignificant players.
The technological atoms for creating these networks are already available to us; what we need is the social will and organization to make it happen. Google and Goldman have gorged themselves on the network windfall for the last two decades. It’s time the rest of us reaped the benefits.