Our Jobs are no Longer Our Lives
13/10/2021 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
On a raging changing of values in the world of work and what this could mean for culture politics.
A few days ago, a comment by Karin Bauer appeared in the Standard that made me prick up my ears. She reported on a recent survey by the US insurer Breeze, according to which 65% of Americans would be willing to give up at least five percent of their income if they could stay in the home office. 15% would even accept a loss of up to a quarter of their pay. Half of traditional office workers would be willing to quit their jobs if they not given the opportunity to work from home (see breeze 2021: To remain remote, employees are willing to give up benefits, PTO, & salary).
The objection was promptly raised that the results did not adequately factor in the special features of the U.S. labor market; they could not be transferred so easily to European conditions. And yet an OGM study commissioned by the Ministry of Labor speaks a very similar language. According to the study, more than two-thirds of all working people in this country are already in favor of flexibly dividing their work between the office and home office. The willingness to accept possible effects on income was not surveyed in Austria.
Quite obviously, there is a comprehensive change underway in attitudes toward the organization of work – with effects on living arrangements, relationship structures, employment contract relationships, and office infrastructure, among other things that cannot even be estimated today. Moreover, these changes in the attitudes of the working population point to an even broader process of change that is challenging the previously sacrosanct values of the world of work. “The job is no longer life, especially not the job in the office…” commented Karin Bauer (head of the careers department for Der Standard), suggesting that – exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic – the shift from a material to an immaterial mode of production will soon be followed by a change in values that will begin to permanently undermine the octroi of the working society, at least as we know it.
Young people in particular no longer want to be forced unconditionally into the regime of the working society
It is primarily younger people who are less and less willing to be squeezed into the constraints of the prevailing logic of production and consumption. They are surprising all those who have been socialized in the labor market all their lives with their demand for a work-life balance for which they are also prepared to accept a loss of income and career opportunities. The ÖGB and, most recently, the party leader of the SPÖ are trying to respond to the changed expectations and have been calling for a 32-hour work week with full wage compensation. Even though Rendi-Wagner has faced massive criticism, including from within her own ranks, a number of national pilot projects have since proven the economic benefits of the proposed reductions in working hours. But parts of the business community are also open to the idea. A Viennese social media agency, for example, has introduced a 32-hour week with full wage compensation. The managing director proudly reports a considerable increase in performance. In contrast, conservative forces are trying by all means to maintain the status quo. And be it as recently with the demand to prevent the possibility of additional income for the long-term unemployed in order to force them – at almost any price – onto the labor market and subject them to its logic.
The great promise that education and achievement lead to security and prosperity was broken
One of the main reasons why the change in values in the area of the working society is more heavily impacting young people may be that the working society in its current state is on the verge of breaking the great promise of advancement through education and achievement. The mood of diffuse insecurity is increasingly pronounced in a younger generation that feels exposed to seemingly uninfluenceable developments in the labor market, where it is primarily random successes that count, and whose emergence they are less and less able to influence with however great their educational efforts. In addition, there is the creeping feeling that, thanks to political support, the wealthy are disconnecting themselves from the rest of society and that solidarity is losing its importance for maintaining a thriving community.
Also under the shadow of major social challenges such as climate change and the waste of resources, young people not only develop a critical distance to the prevailing conditions of production, but also examine their consumption behavior and test themselves as part of a sharing economy, often at a critical distance to the logic of prevailing labor relations.
Working Differently Means Educating Differently – On the Redesign of Education’s Content
For some time now, the University of Applied Arts has been dealing with the profound changes in the world of work, especially in the context of the comprehensive digital penetration of all areas of life and work. A volume on this topic, edited by Gerald Bast and others, entitled “The Future of Education and Labor” was published in 2019. It contains a series of fundamental contributions, above all on the working conditions of the production relationships changed by digitization.
In line with a perspective-oriented discussion, the scenarios presented point to an increasing takeover of not only repetitive, but also increasingly complex and yet algorithmizable work processes by machines. The consequences of this are a progressive release of all those workers whose activities can be replaced by machines. They are threatened with the loss of their position in the labor market. In view of the expected rationalization measures, there are already fears of the development of a two-thirds society in which the more highly qualified fight over the remaining jobs, while an ever larger proportion of the unqualified or incorrectly qualified are threatened with permanent unemployment and exclusion from public awareness.
The break caused by the pandemic, with its considerable increases in the number of unemployed (especially the long-term unemployed) or those on short-time work, at least temporarily, makes it all too easy to forget that the feared rationalization effects have not produced the predicted effects. Instead, in addition to the increases in unemployment figures, the number of people in employment has also risen continuously in recent years. It reached its all-time high in 2019. Admittedly, this success story tells us nothing about the fact that the number of part-time jobs has increased considerably at the same time. The same applies to the number of people who have to work as precarious employees in a new service sector and who, as the new proletariat, are to some extent correcting this superficial success story.
As representatives of an educational institution, Bast and Co argue for a sustainable change in the educational goals that are still linked to the requirements of industrialism. The authors’ scenario amounts to equipping young people in the future primarily with qualifications that cannot be taken over by machines. And to familiarize them once again with a comprehensive concept of education, which is not limited to the anticipated requirements of a future labor market, but familiarizes students in the same way with the ambiguities of human existence and equips them with the ability to weigh up, to relativize, to differentiate, to question or to make connections.
The promise of the arts put to the test
It is in the nature of a university of the arts that it gives special importance to the examination of artistic phenomena. On the one hand, this claim is based on the Enlightenment notion that it is only through the study of art that human beings come fully into their own as free and sovereign beings. And on the other hand, there is the promise that in dealing with art, people’s creative potentials would be released in a special way, which could be decisive for an individually and collectively meaningful way of life beyond digitally mediated standardization.
What is not discussed here is the question of the form of work in which these creative potentials can be realized in the future. Nevertheless, it could be concluded that artistically enriched training programs could be used to integrate a new generation of employees into the labor market, which at the other end would have to be abandoned by all those who no longer meet the new requirements. The logic of the labor society, which is based on comprehensive competition, would remain intact, and the labor market would prove to be flexible in the face of innovative dynamics in the areas of production and consumption (this strategy was pursued, for example, under Tony Blair of New Labour in Great Britain. He saw the massive transformation of the cultural and creative industries as the decisive lever for renewing the British economy and putting it on the road to success in international competition – a strategy, incidentally, that was ended from one day to the next when the Tories took over government responsibility. Similar efforts subsequently found their way into the European Union’s cultural policy).
The more radical variant, of course, would be to anticipate the growing skepticism toward the values of the working society and to link the propagation of art as a decisive innovator with the development of values that point beyond the prevailing work regime. Specifically: to free people, at least partially, from the alienating constraints of the logic of (wage) work and to enable them to focus on what is really important in life, thus on “meaningful doing” (Ralf Dahrendorf wrote a contribution on this as early as 1982 entitled: When Work Becomes Meaningful Doing).
Traditionally, the cultural sector has been caught in a specific tension, oscillating between these two poles. On the one hand, there is an art production that has always tried to position itself at a critical distance from the – in the eyes of its representatives – capitalist relations of exploitation on the labor markets and thus showed no interest in integrating itself into the labor market. More or less explicitly, their representatives tried to turn against the logic of the prevailing market relations and, in contrast, to open up an autonomous space of being active, in which people could come to themselves in a non-alienated way. In order to maintain their conditions of existence, the state was called upon to ensure the production of these merit goods with the help of an elaborate system of subsidies.
The logic of the labor market has fully impacted the cultural sector
On the other hand, it is easy to see that the neoliberal marketization of all areas of work and life over the last thirty years has not stopped at the cultural sector. This is evidenced by the prevalence of the values of a globally active art market, the positioning of large (and increasingly small) cultural institutions as market players in international tourism, and the production of cultural policy hopes in the area of the cultural and creative industries as future decisive economic sectors on the way to the perpetual continuation of an irreversible growth ideology. Even in the independent sector, which was originally propagated as a great alternative, new occupational groups of “cultural workers” were formed, who demanded that they be integrated as quickly as possible into existing employment relationships.
Freelance artists as the avant-garde of a new entrepreneurship
In the course of the neoliberal offensive, the status of the artist mutated all too easily into the avant-garde of a new entrepreneurship. As creatives, they were assumed to have a special willingness to take risks, which would predestine them in a special way to deal with uncertainties and nevertheless assert themselves as freelancers. The realities, however, speak a completely different language. Freelance artists today represent the precariousness of working conditions like no other sector. Studies on the social situation of freelance artists have recently shown that their annual median income from artistic work in 2018 was just 5,000 euros. This means, however, that a large part of those affected are dependent on at least a second professional pillar that enables them to pursue their artistic activities. This also means that the consequences of the pandemic for the cultural sector have brought to light the unequal realization conditions of artists as permanent employees in cultural institutions on the one hand and as freelancers on the other. While the former could be largely secured with the help of short-time work programs, the freelancers were faced with existential threats from one day to the next. Initial estimates from Germany (no such surveys exist for Austria to date) assume that at least 300,000 freelance artists have given up their work in the course of the pandemic and sought other forms of employment, especially in the service sector.
But even in the institutional sphere, employment relationships pop up again and again that make the payment of artistic workers almost an act of mercy, or at any rate reinforce the impression that things are particularly unfair in the cultural labor market. Parts of cultural policy have at least taken note of this problem and are trying to develop measures in favor of fair pay in agreement with the interest groups. These measures are aimed at tying public funding for the arts and culture to compliance with minimum standards of remuneration, even if it can be assumed that fewer applicants will benefit if the existing sizes of funding budgets are maintained.
The social consequences can easily be predicted when, with increasing selectivity of state funding, an ever larger proportion of the artists negatively affected by this will have to decide whether or not they can afford their artistic engagements and the ratio of paid to unpaid activity will thus shift.
You once again have to be able to afford to be an artist
In this way, however, artistic activity is relegated to an activity beyond the labor market, admittedly without the equal material conditions for all having been created. The engagement with art thus becomes an activity for those who can afford it.
Before proposing one or the other solution, a special aspect of the current status of art in society should be pointed out. After all, the modern culture industry was largely organized in agreement with the dominant market conditions. Thus, a small group of producers who had to be paid for their services was confronted with as large a group of consumers as possible who were willing to pay for the services rendered by the artists. Cultural policy measures were usually limited to keeping these precarious markets in balance when certain artistic performances were deemed socially useful and necessary as merit goods, even if they were not met with a sufficient number of buyers.
Art as an irritation of the prevailing production and consumption model
At the latest with the emergence of artistic avant-gardes, which rely on interaction between artists and the audience, the values shift from the productiveness of art to its process. What is decisive is what happens between the participants, who can no longer be so easily divided into those who actively make and those who passively experience. This, however, creates new constellations between payers and payees, between producers and consumers, when both sides are equally involved in the artistic process. The artist and art theorist Bazon Brock already pointed out the changed role behavior many years ago, in which he paid the visitors of his performance in the Vienna Schauspielhaus for their participation.
The changes in the values related to the world of work in broader sections of the population, as previously indicated, offer an occasion to reflect on the part that art can play in this. On the one hand, this concerns the examination of artistic phenomena themselves, which – at least by its representatives – is only too willingly inscribed with the promise of “meaningful action” in the sense of Dahrendorf, instead of alienated work. And on the other hand, artists offer themselves as border crossers between participation in a cultural labor market that highly privileges a few and discriminates against all others, and the claim to self-determined, thus often unpaid artistic activity. This could prove to be a model for what could be in store for broader parts of the population in the expected further development of labor markets.
Even if the labor market figures still speak a different language today. There are many indications that the social separation between those who (still) have work and those who do not have this privilege (the unemployed) will be a high political priority in terms of the continuation of democratic achievements. There is much to suggest that we are still at the beginning of a comprehensive technological development that will fundamentally shake up the existing living and working conditions of more and more people. In the sense of the aforementioned change in values, some people will submit to the increasingly rigid labor market requirements, even if they are in the class of new service providers. Another part, however, will leave the labor market permanently, either as part of the permanently unemployed or in search of “meaningful activity”, in order to strive for other life plans and to accept considerable material restrictions including the threat of a loss of social prestige.
Artists at least have the privilege of being able to compensate for real losses in this respect by referring to their suspended status, which at least allows them social recognition within their own ranks.
Possible Cultural Policy Responses
With the knowledge of the manifold individual support measures to limit the damage of the pandemic, which are no longer manageable in detail, many artists have recently spoken out in favor of the implementation of a basic income without preconditions. With the understanding of the political explosiveness of such a one-sided privilege, this should of course not only be provided for one’s own professional group, but as a substitute benefit that can be used by all.
The advantages and disadvantages of introducing such a measure, which tends to undermine the prevailing labor market logic, have been discussed in detail – exacerbated by developments during the pandemic – in terms of their sociopolitical implications. This does not apply in the same way to the questions of possible effects on art production, reception, and mediation, which would be a worthwhile research project in itself. There is a tendency to fear that such a measure, without corresponding steering measures, will support hitherto very dominant forces of persistence, if all those who are now suffering from in part scandalously unequal treatment, at best also revolt against it, at any rate appear pacified for the time being, and a “carry on like this” for a few privileged actors comes within reach.
More radical, on the other hand, is a change in the profile of artists who no longer limit themselves to creating art that sells more or less well, but rather develop themselves as communicators or facilitators of joint artistic processes in various social milieus. The advantages lie on the one hand in overcoming an increasingly self-referential ghetto through concrete cooperation with actors from other disciplines (environment, education, social affairs,…,) in order to achieve social relevance (and thus income) once again. And on the other hand, in the possibility to become part of a larger public, in which central questions concerning all of us are negotiated.
In this context, the thoughts on a New New Deal for the arts fit very well. Following the example of the federal Work Project Administration (WPA), founded in the USA in 1935, the curator and director of the Serpentine Gallery in London is currently proposing a large-scale employment program for artists, in order to use their aesthetic expertise to solve the manifold problems of society. State cultural policies, however, have so far shown little willingness to follow such a proposal. On the contrary, it is to be feared that the upcoming consolidation programs could also lead to considerable cuts in the area of arts and culture funding.
Regardless of this, the courage to change, also and especially on the part of artists, will essentially determine whether they, with their own contradictory experiences, will be able to make a contribution to the current change in values in the world of work. Or whether they will once again – to their own detriment – lag behind current developments.