The scary world of precarious work

James Baldwin wrote that every Black man needs a gimmick to survive – this generation will need to find their own gimmicks



I can recall the exact moment when it hit home how outright scary the modern world of work can be.

I was teaching part-time at a college in Toronto. One of my students, Jamal (not his real name), requested to meet with me after class. He was one of my brighter learners – affable, fiercely intelligent and highly motivated. He was off to a great start in the semester, but as the weeks sailed by, he started skipping class and submitting sloppy work.

“I don’t know what I’m doing anymore,” he admitted to me when we met. He was visibly exhausted, on the verge of throwing in the proverbial towel.

In addition to personal challenges and work pressures, he was having serious doubts about where he was headed in life.

“I’m piling up debts while I’m learning all of this stuff,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s worth it.”

Then he got to the crux of the matter: “I probably won’t even get a job.”

That was back in 2009, when the full impact of the financial crisis hit and what it all meant and how it would affect employment was still not fully understood.

I wanted to give Jamal some encouragement, so I offered him some of the usual platitudes, which I now regret – “hang in there,” “the Boomers will soon retire,” “the job market will improve,” “it may take some time but you’ll get there,” and the Obama-inspired prod “you can do it.”

I was the last person who should have been giving career advice. I was flat broke at the time, saddled with my own debts, cycling through pay-day loans, working three jobs and feeling quite dreadful about my prospects of finding stable employment.

Despite having three post-secondary degrees, tons of work experience, access to a robust professional network and a track record of varied job successes, I was in a situation not too dissimilar from Jamal’s.

If I was struggling to shape my own career and plan for the future, what were his chances?

James Baldwin wrote that every Black man needs a gimmick to survive. When I was in university, I understood this to mean that I needed to do something – anything – that would make me marketable and give me a chance to stay afloat under circumstances that were designed to work against me.

My generation inherited deeply-held notions of doing better than our parents, acquiring property and getting ahead. In pursuit of this life, I dabbled in everything from bus-driving to working in Toronto’s shelter system in search of a gimmick that would stick for me.

In the face of growing employment inequality, rising living costs and stagnant wagesthis generation has a different set of circumstances to contend with and will need to find their own gimmicks.

The prevailing work myths

In all of the hoopla about the emergence of the so-called “gig” and “knowledge” economies, educators often obscure (or downplay) the harsh realities of what it takes to secure reliable employment these days.

Naturally optimistic about the future (is there any other way as a teacher?), we promote hard work, talk up job skills and drone on about the importance of effective networking.

And yet the facts concerning how precarious work really is are there for all to see.

We tell students they should be excited about advancements in new technologies but seldom admit that these very same technologies – and the outsourcing to cheaper labour markets that accompany them – are responsible for the disappearance of whole industries.

We also don’t tell them that the digital economy isn’t likely to produce enough new jobs to replace the 300,000 well-paying ones that have vanished in manufacturing in Ontario since the 2008 recession.

Artificial intelligence and other nascent technologies are clearly shaping the future of work. They will eventually create new industries, but no one can predict when this will happen.

In the meantime, automated technologies have completely replaced human labour. As Martin Ford points out in his wholly depressing but intriguing book Rise Of The Robots, “machines themselves are turning into workers, and the line between capability of labour and capital is blurring as never before.”

And it’s not just low-wage service and blue-collar workers being affected. According to a recent report, over 20 per cent of working professionals including teachers, lawyers, accountants and health care workers are precariously employed, making it clear that even accomplished, highly credentialed workers who supposedly “did everything right” are struggling to get by.

Is it at all doom and gloom?

While it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of work, there are things educators can do to better prepare our students.

Discussions about job skills and competencies are a welcome start. Critical thinking, interpersonal communication, cultural competency and literacy are some of the skills being viewed as equally if not more important than the acquisition of diplomas and degrees.

The delivery of higher education itself is another area of concern.

We’ve finally come to accept that the old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar approaches are no longer working and are entirely insufficient in today’s economy. In response, students are demanding a more modularized curriculum, academic credit for prior learning and experience, as well as increased distant learning options in order to navigate and sustain their competing priorities.

But as Mowat Centre policy director Sunil Johal points out, we can’t afford to focus solely on students and workers. We also need to ensure robust social supports like flexible and accessible employment insurance and large-scale public skills programs capable of assisting workers as they transition through a challenging labour environment.

“We can learn a lot from what other jurisdictions have done,” says Johal. “We need to be thinking about affordable housing, childcare, pensions and other broad-based supports that provide a buffer for people who may fall on hard times.”

But with growing inequality in employment, we also need to encourage students to engage in new forms of activism that demand equitable labour policies and conditions. Civic engagement and participation in the political process should be taught alongside the post-secondary curriculum.

What we tell the Jamals of the world

My conversation with Jamal became a key turning point in my career. It challenged me to be more open and honest with my students about what they’re up against in pursuing work. It made me realize that we do a major disservice telling young people all they need to do is graduate with credentials when we know that’s not always enough to land gainful employment.

If I had a chance to go back, I would be more honest with Jamal. I’d tell him there are no easy answers. I’d tell him that he will have to be resilient and creative in how he approaches work. I’d tell him to be prepared to switch his career plans if necessary. I would have shared honestly that I was also struggling to survive. I would have told him to stay on the lookout for opportunities and hustle where he could, all while pursuing further education. Most importantly, I would have told him that what he was experiencing wasn’t his fault.

Neil Price is associate dean of the School of Social and Community Services at Humber College. He will be writing about job precarity, side hustles, resilience and labour activism throughout 2019. Have an interesting story? Get in touch at news@nowtoronto.com.

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