Friday, 7 December 2012

Oh, You Have a Degree? Then You Must Have a Job!

Laurie Penny had a piece in the Guardian yesterday, in which she discusses the enormous amount of fear and stress young people feel about their student loans and their prospects for employment.

This is something I know.

Oh, is THAT what I'm meant to do!
Penny writes from London, where I have struggled to live before, and I know how difficult it can be (homeless! In January! In Camden!). Though I live now in Ontario, the path my country and province are following is the same as London - increasing ideological austerity even in the face of concrete evidence that it is fiscally reckless and harmful for almost everyone. Though, as with everything in our mess of a hierarchical system, it is most harmful to the people who have already been harmed by it - that is, single parents (mothers, usually), people with disabilities, people in industries with low job security, marginalized racial groups, people without homes, and on and on. The poorer you are, of course, the harder austerity measures hit.

I am one of those people who lives in fear of how I will pay my student debt, which, combined with my partner's debt, is an amount of money which is not absolutely large - smaller than some of my (employed) friends' mortgages, for example - but is absolutely insurmountable for us. It is insurmountable because in spite of - or, I'm coming to think, because of - our postgraduate levels of education, neither of us is able to find work.

I recognize that our education is an indicator of privilege - we are both white, Canadian-born, from middle class backgrounds - and that as such we are likelier to eventually become meaningfully employed than other people who may be in a position similar to ours (I cannot tell you how distasteful I find it to be reassured how "employable" I am). I also recognize that although I feel a great deal of despair and anxiety over our current position, if I'm completely honest with myself, I'm also taking for granted that it will be temporary. That something will happen, sometime, because it just has to, because I can't imagine that our potential as productive members of society would be stalled so early and unfairly. Believing that you have the right to fulfill your potential - now that's privilege.

But even acknowledging all that, these are the facts: we owe a great deal of money, which we spent getting degrees meant to help us get jobs commensurate with our levels of education, and so the loans we took out were to be considered investments. The availability of those jobs in any meaningful sense has declined dramatically, and they would likely not have existed for me in the first place. Because of the combined pressures of unemployment and high levels of personal debt, we currently live with my mother, a retired teacher, and we are extremely fortunate to have somewhere to go, because we couldn't possibly pay rent. To ameliorate this problem, we collect social assistance from Ontario Works, which provides us with between $950 and $1030, depending on how many dance classes I taught that month, for the two of us. This *just* covers both our monthly student loan payments and almost nothing else. (It is beyond my comprehension that people are expected to live off this benefit - take a look here for mean cost of living in Kitchener. Needless to say, it is way more than the amount of the benefit.) The kicker is that the system, in its infinite wisdom, does not recognize us as a possibility: there are no considerations for university graduates needing assistance and so we are not eligible for any skill-up programs, and the employment counseling is all but useless - more than one person has said "the expectation is that you have a degree, so you must have a job" verbatim. But the real harm of our being invisible within this system - and the reasons for one's invisibility have a great deal to do with what kind of harm is caused, so that harms to us are still relative to our privilege - is that we are not allowed to use social assistance money to pay our loans. Seriously. When we are audited, and we will be, they will discover that our loan payments are being made, and since we couldn't possibly be using Ontario Works money to pay them, they will assume that we're getting money from somewhere and not telling them about it, and they will cut off our assistance. I have no idea when that will happen, or what we will do when it does.

So we look for work. And looking for work is a deeply humiliating experience, made more so when the jobs that are available for you to apply for are jobs you do not want. I don't mean as a matter of preference - "this job isn't perfect; this job doesn't pay enough" or whatever - but as a matter of economic disenfranchisement. Every job I apply to that asks for a level of education or experience which is less than what I have is a job I'm potentially taking away from someone with the right level of education or experience, or the right kind of education or experience. That I'm applying for serving jobs at all is a problem; that I've got a master's degree and 10 years experience in service and still not getting hired, because everyone else applying for that job also has 10 years experience and a master's degree, that many of us are not even listing those master's degrees on most of the resumes we hand out, indicates a systemic failure of sweeping scope and complexity.

There's a sort of wrinkling-down that comes along with my applying for serving jobs, or my partner - a PhD! - training at a call centre, which he's currently doing: If there are no jobs which require our educations available, we have to apply for jobs that don't require our levels of education, and eventually a master's degree becomes the standard level of education for any entry-level job. It has already happened with bachelor's degrees - every job wants one, no matter how irrelevant it may be to the task at hand - and it is slowly happening with master's degrees, already considered not to be a terminal degrree. If having a postgraduate degree becomes the minimum standard for low-security, low-paying, mostly part-time jobs, then what are people with bachelor degrees to do? What about people with only high school? I have a feeling that those in the skilled trades will fare better, but what about people who didn't graduate high school? If the jobs that have required little to no education are being taken by people with degrees, what's left for people without them? That's without even talking about how our participation in the workforce is held ransom for the price of university, a structure which requires people to assume an enormous burden of debt to attain a degree that will enable them to work at a job that might make no use of their degree at all.

In addition to the very real economic hardships it encourages and deepens, this represents a dramatic wasting of human capital. It is unconscionable to accept these kinds of diminishing returns on such an institutional scale, and it is undermining any hope for the creative class that is supposed to trumpet our shift into future-economy (I have my doubts about the viability of this model in the first place, but it's an academic point at this juncture anyway). The hollowing-out of job security and the neo-liberal emphasis on a flexible labour market (translation: we want to be able to fire you more easily) has placed undue pressure on those who remain within it, as I've written about elsewhere, meaning that the work they do is of lower quality, and personal lives and health suffer as a result.

I have a wishlist:
  • A shift in educational culture to one which does not assume that university follows high school in the same way we assume that high school follows elementary school - not only does that not leave any room for discussions of who is excluded from participation in the university system, it encourages people to take whatever, usually something in the social sciences or humanities, because they're expected to go to university. It's kind of like wanting a tattoo and then deciding what it's going to be, rather than being so invested in an idea or image that you feel you want to carry it around forever. This shift would also require:
  • A shift in educational culture which does not posit polytechnic or college training as somehow lesser-than a university education - they serve different functions, and as long as we keep assuming that everyone should go to university we are closing doors to people with interests that lay outside of the university purview. Meaningful policy would include major increases in the availability and prestige of apprenticeships as part of post-secondary education. This is of course related to:
  • A broader cultural shift which ceases to privilege certain types of knowledge over others, a structure which allows us to define intelligence as the ability to thrive within the particulars of the university system. Or put another way, an acknowledgement that getting good grades means only that you're good at getting good grades, and is not necessarily a referendum on one's intelligence.
  • Obviously, a better and more comprehensive social assistance program which is capable of addressing people in changing or atypical situations. This would need to be accompanied by an acknowledgement that people on benefits are not there because they are lazy, that "culture of entitlement" is a complete myth designed and borne out by cynical political ideologues, and a genuine effort to remove the shame and stigma from collecting benefits.
  • A minimum wage and social assistance levels which are tied to inflation and costs of living. Like, obviously.
  • My most fervent wish, and at the broadest level: a cultural shift away from the absolute privileging of the work performed in the economic sphere over any work performed without monetary compensation, and perhaps even a shift away from the separation of economic and domestic spheres altogether.
That should get us started, anyway.

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