Good enough jobs and good enough workers

First published on November 2011.

Many of us who work in education, working with the graduates that will staff the cultural industries, would see it as our role to produce critical practitioners. This means not only having the skills and knowledge required to follow this type of work, but an ability to reflect on that work, their role in it, and its place in society. But what might this involve, particularly in a workforce where opportunities and conditions are appearing more and more problematic?

This is not to suggest that jobs in the creative and cultural industries are, by most measures, bad jobs. There are many more dangerous, difficult and anti-social forms of work. While forms of gross exploitation are, of course, a feature of cultural labour markets – particularly in manufacturing – this is not the experience of most UK graduates. But difficult, dangerous and anti-social forms of work, from mining to care work to refuse collection, are rarely held up as exemplars of desirable work.

Joining the creative industries, however, is the goal of many young entrants to universities and colleges. Not necessarily because they seek celebrity and fame – although some might – but because the combination of pleasure, glamour, the chance to work in what might otherwise be a hobby, and the possibility of doing something meaningful, provide, understandably provides, a huge draw.

Which is why the following conversation is all too typical. Student: ‘I’m being offered an unpaid internship for three months in a gallery.’ Teacher: ‘Have you done any internship before?’ Students: ‘Yes, I did two when I was an undergraduate, and one more this year. I can’t really afford to do another one, as l’ve got debts, but I don’t want to give up my dream. I’m determined.’

At this point, a longer conversation ensues about what it is the young person is determined to do, what deal they are being offered, and what other choices they have. What is often missed in conversations about their dream, their determination, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves, is what one might call a healthy notion of the place of work in life. And it seems to me that it is that conversation, not another one about creativity, entrepreneurship or even cultural consumption that needs to be happening in the education of young people.

The possibility that there might be other ways to get the same sort of satisfaction, that there are other types of work that might be interesting, or that getting a good job is just one part of a good life, is too little discussed. Instead, students are often subjected to a sort of ‘motivational speaker’ approach, where someone who works in the cultural industries is brought in to tell them that if they are not ‘110% committed,’ or ‘passionate’ or don’t wake up every day thinking about their work, they won’t make it. Practitioners, – and, indeed, academics, – frequently wear tales of their own overwork like a badge of honour, rather than as evidence of failure to keep work within its proper bounds. The role of ambition and the desire to get ahead is a common enough part of human nature; but that doesn’t mean it should be uncritically celebrated.

The history of the labour movement and the struggle to put boundaries around work is often unknown, or regarded as a complete irrelevance. Yes, the fact that our forebears, – in conditions of much less material wellbeing than many people live in now, – fought to establish paid holidays, sick pay and some level of workplace security, seems to me entirely relevant to a conversation about interns and unpaid work. The role of unions like the NUJ in pursuing the ‘cashback for interns campaign’ is garnering some useful attention, but, when discussing it, a depressingly common response is, ‘why shouldn’t I work for free?’

Though unpaid internships have clearly become a political issue of late, the link between self-exploitation and the exploitation of others is often under-played. ‘Should I take unpaid work?’ is a legitimate question, but so is the answer ‘no’. Not just because it exploits you, but by creating a market for unpaid work you are helping to exploit others. And the implication of that unpaid work for class and ethnicity-based exclusion is obvious for all to see.

An economy that is producing far too little work and where graduate unemployment is rising, is a place of very hard choices for students in higher education. It is an unpromising place to hold a conversation about good work. But if education is to mean anything beyond the instrumental, it is a conversation we all need to have.

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Illustrations by Paul Davis -