Work? What a silly idea

March 26, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A study making headlines today in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology suggests that having a mentally demanding job before you retire is associated (in about 4000 Americans) with “higher levels of cognitive functioning before retirement, and a slower rate of cognitive decline after retirement”. Use it or lose it, in short.

And who wants to lose it? A retirement spent blowing the kids’ inheritance on having fun is one thing; a retirement blighted by stroke or dementia is quite another.

A letter to my local paper last week, meanwhile, remarked on the way we insist on people ‘finding jobs’, even as companies increasingly use technology to replace them. Or to shift the work elsewhere: the forms which would once have been filled by a secretary are often now completed by customers, online.

Which got me thinking — as I and many before me have thought — about work and the way we organise it.

Frankly, it’s rather silly. The timing’s inept, the concept old-fashioned, and the execution often cruel. For much of history this hasn’t mattered, as there’s been plenty of work to go around; also many people didn’t live long enough to worry about retirement. But things are changing, as the available labour shrinks. And not only shrinks, but shifts towards two extremes: the much-puffed ‘knowledge economy’, and the rest.

  • ‘high-end’ jobs pay relatively well and demand a lot of skills and brainpower (e.g. university teachers and researchers). They also have high workloads and long hours;
  • more manual jobs, which we can’t yet replace with technology, are typically much lower-paid, despite the fact that it’s hard to see how caring for the sick and elderly is less important than teaching kids why Hamlet, or quantum mechanics, matters. Of course, you don’t need extensive training to be a carer.

(We might infer that high pay is perhaps a reward for time invested in previous study? — except that investment bankers can earn far, far more than university lecturers. Is it then a reward for effort, or physical labour? Tell that to a farmer. For danger? Ask a fireman. For being brilliant and/or irreplaceable? That’s what the most highly-paid often seem to be saying, but there’s very little evidence that they’re right.)

There’s less work to go round, especially for those without the best qualifications. And what work there is doesn’t always pay enough to live on. The private sector is on a win-win here. They can get away with paying low wages because the state will fill the gap. They can hike rents, or drive up house prices, because that’s ‘the free market’. They can make profits by pushing their costs onto others, and still whinge about the tax they have to pay — when much of that tax goes on payments that wouldn’t be needed if they weren’t so utterly focused on making money.

In Britain, we hark back to the days when great companies built houses for their workers, or gave their kids schools. That kind of philanthropy may still go on, but we don’t hear much about it. Instead we hear a lot about companies who seem to live by the ancient Roman principle: “homo homini lupus” (“Man is a wolf to man.”) And they have the cheek to complain about government ‘red tape’! Guys, if you behaved better we wouldn’t need to impose the regulation on you — and on everyone else.

As work becomes scarcer, the rhetoric of its desirability intensifies. You’d think humans lived entirely and only to work. The unemployed are stigmatised, their benefits decried (yet the far more expensive pensions of the elderly are OK, because they earned their rewards). Kids are so indoctrinated with the need to find a job that they spend much of their childhood cramming, agonising over exams, struggling with homework, knowing they have to achieve — at a time when they’re dealing with the massive social pressures of growing up. Small wonder some drop out. People who can’t work feel dreadful guilt. Some who lose their jobs are driven to suicide.

There’s something pitiful about a first-year university English Literature student distraught because she’s “wasted time” reading Wuthering Heights when it wasn’t on her course. Or a seventeen-year-old whose only idea about all the cultural riches available to them is how to get work that will pay them enough to buy lots of stuff. Come to that, there’s something pitiful about a middle-aged adult lying awake at night worrying about how they’ll cope with both a sick parent and the demands of running their own household, while working all the hours their job demands. And there’s certainly much to be pitied in the lonely senior, deprived by retirement of company and stimulation, or the hard-working tax-payer who, as they reach retirement, is diagnosed with some appalling illness, like dementia.

Why do we do it this way? It’s bad for our brains, our health and our happiness. At the time of life when we are most able to enjoy ourselves, some of us are working ridiculous hours while others face empty days. Women lose out if they have kids, especially if they choose not to deposit the sprogs in childcare. Some people aren’t paid enough to live on; others earn far more than any human being could reasonably need. Then we reach retirement age, and suddenly that’s it: we’re pensioned off, our productive days over. Yet creativity doesn’t cut out at sixty-five, nor intelligence shrivel at seventy. A man who turns 65 in the UK can expect to live a further 17.8 years, a woman 20.4 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. That’s a lot of years to write off, especially with an ageing population.

There are many ways in which we could change this mess. Most of them are extremely unlikely to happen, not least because the mess didn’t come about by accident. It suits the people in charge, insofar as anyone’s in charge. Yet it may be worth stating some options anyway, if only because they’re far too radical for serious politics and so aren’t often heard. (I’m not a politician, so I don’t need to be serious.)

  • Make the private sector pay its way. Rent caps (why should taxpayers spend masses on housing benefits so that landlords can get rich?). Tackling tax evasion and business subsidies. Redistribution: in the UK this year, a few lucky bankers collected over £5 million each from Barclays Bank. Why are they worth 50 times what we pay our most senior nursing directors, let alone frontline nurses?
  • Encourage job-sharing, volunteering, hobbies and part-time work. Make it acceptable for people of both sexes to take career breaks in midlife. Pay parents better: bringing up kids is hard work. Defusing the social pressures around work and worklessness with clear financial incentives would do wonders for the nation’s health bill, apart from its other benefits.
  • Rethink education. Currently it’s mostly stuffed into our youngest years, and some of it’s pretty irrelevant to most adults. It should be lifelong, as much a part of our routine as running a bank account. That old canard about brain development ceasing around 18 is nonsense.
  • A living wage and/or minimum income guarantee (discussed here in the US context). Many people who’d like to volunteer can’t afford to; many who can afford to can’t spare the time. Making sure that everyone has a minimum guaranteed income to live on would help with at least the first of these problems, as well as reducing the devastating costs of stress-induced mental illnesses. It would also save on the gigantic benefits bill, not least because it would be a good deal simpler to administer than current systems.
  • High-end jobs like running a university, company or bank may be extremely hard and stressful, but the work itself is not intrinsically unpleasant or dangerous (except insofar as the sedentary lifestyle brings health risks). Jobs which are unpleasant and dangerous should be paid more, or workers given a tax break, to express the nation’s gratitude that we don’t have to do this stuff. And if that study I mentioned is correct, perhaps we should be targeting the financial rewards towards encouraging workers to continue their education.
  • Abolish retirement except on health grounds. If work — in moderation — is so good for us, we shouldn’t be driving people away from it. If there’s less work to go round, we need to be more creative in how we organise it — because there’s plenty to do; it’s just that much of it isn’t currently paid work. Making high-end jobs less demanding and low-end work more interesting, and giving people more life space to do unpaid work, would make retirement look less attractive, as well as providing benefits for workers and society.

Work is bound up with many half-acknowledged ideas: about fairness and reciprocity, status and identity. While there was plenty of it, there wasn’t much need to examine its rationales, and how deep-seated feelings and ways of thinking affect them. But work is changing, and we need to change our ideas about work.

 

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What are academics for?

July 25, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Medeleeff by repin

Why do we have these people? We see plenty of them; they’re always in the media. They talk, a lot. But what’s the point of academics?

We know why we have universities and colleges. They’re safe houses, quarantining intellectuals so that the rest of us only have to put up with them at a distance, buffered by radio, TV or internet. People who don’t really fit are collected into pleasant refuges where they have others like themselves to keep them company. We’re OK with that. One mark of a good society is how it treats its academics.

All we ask in return is that they teach some vaguely useful stuff to kids to help them find jobs, while allowing the dear little things to a) make the friends who’ll help them out in later life and b) get the partying (mostly) out of their systems.

Oh, and there’s paperwork — and boy, do academics whinge about that. Like no one else faces hateful bureaucracies.

But why have academics at all? Can’t the teaching be done by teachers, instead of people who’d really rather be researching the sex lives of protons, or some such?

Traditional answers to this question are as follows:

1) Academics provide the creative sparks which drive innovation

Isaac Asimov‘s short story ‘Profession‘ makes this claim. In its future Earth, children are selected for specific jobs based on their brain structure, and programmed with the necessary knowledge. Asimov asks how, in such a system, creativity is sustained, and links creativity to rebelliousness and to — in conventional terms — failure.

Governments make this claim too, but they don’t see the need for rebelliousness, and they do appear to see creativity purely as a money-making tool.  Oddly, this doesn’t stop my government piling up obstacles, like the costly, cruel and inane Research Excellence Framework. Poor management, a plethora of regulations, and soaring numbers of students and managers — but not academics — could have been designed to stamp out the creative impulse. Either our masters are stupid, or they’re not listening to front-line people, or ideology can trump both evidence and economics. My guess would be it’s a mix of the latter two.

2) Academics create, store and pass on knowledge

Computers can do that. They used only to store stuff, but online teaching’s becoming ever more common, despite its problems. And data-crunching algorithms are being loosed on big datasets to find new ideas. At present, we still need academics to programme the crunchers and interpret the results. Students also seem to prefer being taught by humans. But part of the anxiety cascading through academia at the moment may be due to a feeling that they are undervalued, and may become superfluous, in a system whose overriding ethos is about money.

3) Academics speak truth to power

I wish. Those who do generally don’t get a hearing, and most don’t. Academics may be creative, but that doesn’t make them natural activists. Besides, the system comes down increasingly hard on troublemakers. (The current enthusiasm for open access publishing is, paradoxically, making things worse: because universities have to pay the author fee, they’re now deciding who gets published, giving them a hefty motivational lever for irksome faculty.)

4) Academics help us become better citizens

Do we have any evidence for this? As an academic myself, I’d like to believe that we’re gatekeepers, helping people make sense of life’s complexities. Human beings do seem to enjoy understanding stuff, judging by the kind folks who’ve thanked me for ‘making it so clear’ about brain research. So maybe academics provide that particular reward.

Could it be that our education systems haven’t yet succeeded in starving the desire to think out of everyone, and our politics haven’t yet brought us all to believe that the only things that matter in life are cash and career?

5) Academics are part of the entertainment industry

In darker moments, I wonder: is this what it’s come down to? Watching the news, and the newsreaders’ expressions as they report on some new scientific finding, it’s sometimes hard not to hear a patronising tone. ‘Just look at what these inventive people have come up with now, girls and boys! Whatever will they think of next? And now, here’s Sally with the weather.’

Academics are more and more judged by impact: whether they can get a TV tie-in, or ‘engage the community’. But the community has plenty else to think about, so the intellectuals compete to offer light relief from the daily grind. And yet, some of the things they’re saying may really matter. Is ‘infotainment’ always appropriate?

*******

Creators, interpreters, truth-tellers, guides, or entertainers: what are academics for? What should they be for? Are their purposes changing, and if so, for better or worse? And who’s driving that change?

Maybe that’s what academics are for! Asking questions …

Unlucky Jim and the ghost in the academic machine

July 18, 2013 at 11:27 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Picture a middle-aged man in a small, unlovely office. He’s a thinker, a writer, an intellectual: he’s an academic at a UK university. (That’s already cause for suspicion.) Let’s call him Jim.

Jim’s trying to keep up with his gigantic and growing workload, but he’s finding it hard to concentrate. This isn’t laziness; he’s used to working evenings, weekends and national holidays. The problem isn’t just the amount of work, either. It’s that Jim is deeply, grindingly demoralised.

Why? Because his university’s acting as if all that matters is money — which wasn’t why Jim went into academia — and their management style leaves much to be desired. He’s fed up with being told to do X by people who don’t seem to realise that if X had been possible, it would have already been done — especially when other parts of the system are demanding that he simultaneously perform  the contradictory action Y. Treat students as units of cash, and as little gods to be propitiated at all costs. Do less admin, but fill in this truckload of forms. Do more research, but give us a whole new set of teaching modules. Oh, and by the way, we’ve changed the system, again, without asking your opinion — so it’s an utter mess; make sure you have it sorted out by the beginning of term.

The work dumped on Jim by others – which needs doing yesterday, of course – is either teaching or admin. The criteria for promotion are purely based on research: the research he’d love to do, if he could only find the time. He can’t see how he’ll ever progress, because the university won’t fund replacements for the several colleagues who’ve left or gone off sick, so there’s no prospect of the deluge letting up. He’s signed up to jobs websites. So, he suspects, has everyone else in his beleaguered department.

As if that weren’t enough, Jim has a much more urgent fear than lack of promotion. Somewhere, he knows, his fate as a researcher is being decided.

Who are the judges? What do they know about him?

Our unlucky academic has no idea.

Are they his professional rivals? Has someone told tales about him? Do they remember his ill-judged remark at a meeting? Has he been too outspoken, too political?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. He can’t be sure.

On what grounds will they judge him?

He doesn’t know that either. They say there are rules, but the rules are so vague, who knows how they’ll be interpreted? The trial is secret, and there’s no appeal. Maybe they just don’t like his work, or him, irrespective of his smart and scholarly writing.

Have his colleagues been judged?

He doesn’t know. No one’s talking, from fear, or shame, or because they don’t yet know their fate.

What if the judgement goes against him?

Again, the judges aren’t talking; among the rest, dire rumours circulate. It may mean demotion, hardship, humiliation – the end of his life as an intellectual. He may be given lesser work, or he may be forced out of his job, thrown on society’s dust heap, his years of specialist training gone to waste.

Is this tormented individual in Stalinist Russia or Khmer Rouge Cambodia? Of course not! He’s not going to be shot, is he? He faces no beatings, no torture. Just the sweating anxiety of a secret, uncontestable judgement.

In academia, the freedom to think is essential. Yet in recent years, a venomous combination of ideology, inertia, and political convenience has crushed UK academics under an enormous workload and the heavy hand of over-management. If you’ve heard talk of intellectual freedom, of open science, of academia as a playground of ideas where truth is spoken to power, forget it. Judgement without appeal, lack of open process and accountability, and an increasingly controlling bureaucracy: this is how our academic institutions are operating as they decide upon their submissions for the Research Excellence Framework, the enormously expensive process that decides who gets what funding, next time round.

Where we most need freedom and open information, the chains are tightening and the veils being drawn. So much is old news.

However, it’s even worse than we believed – because as the REF, that academic Day of Judgement, looms ever larger, so does the ghost of a man so strongly associated with un-freedom that the last place you’d expect to find his ideas put into practice is a university. Critiqued, yes, for politics, history and other humanities courses often use Uncle Joe Stalin as target practice. But adopted as a strategy? And yet, when it comes to deciding which academics get entered for the REF, it seems some universities — because some are worse than others — have taken a tip or several from the Stalinist manual.

Researchers are assessed, by someone else in their university, as REF-able or not. If their work is not deemed sufficiently exciting, revolutionary, ground-breaking, or world-leading, they will not be included in the university’s REF submission. Are the assessors experts in all the work they’re reading? Not necessarily. Within the university, Jim could be rated by someone who knows very little about his work. Indeed, he may be the only scholar in his field at his institution. In which case, what of the supposed peer review?

The scope for conservatism, personal grudges, or downright prejudice is horrifying. Bizarrely, it’s worse than in the actual REF itself, because the national REF panels which make the final, overall judgements are picked for specialist expertise. So if Jim’s work is difficult, unfashionable, or interdisciplinary, he’s in trouble. Let’s imagine that he works on the history of women’s rights in Victorian England. Top-notch male academics have been known to write about women, but it’s generally not a fashionable field. Now, if he’d chosen something twentieth-century, preferably about war …

Worse still, academics tend to see themselves as highly-trained rational thinkers. Could this lead them to overestimate their capacity to make unbiased judgements? Is a sixty-year-old male professor of modern history, who isn’t interested in anything before 1900 and thinks research on women’s rights a waste of time, going to be a fair judge of Jim’s work? The professor thinks so. He may not know about the recent research, in the sciences, which showed that merely putting a woman’s name on a CV – let alone in the title of a paper – was enough to discount its worth in the eyes of academics.

But if the assessor marks a REF submission down, even though it was published in the field’s top journal, what can Jim do about it? He may not even know who assessed him, let alone what out-of-date beliefs they hold. He’ll never know whether another institution might have reacted differently. And because there’s no feedback, there’s no need for the assessors to justify their decisions.

Does it matter? Yes. If Jim’s not REF-able, he’s second-class, and the heart of his academic career may just have been torn out.

University management have been given a stranglehold on research. They can crush minority interests, less fashionable fields, or difficult, unpopular researchers. Bureaucracy has its hands round academia’s throat, and the worst of it is, it’s the universities themselves — and again, some are worse than others — who are doing this to their own researchers.

That’s no surprise, of course. It’s a pattern that crops up again and again: the bosses (here the government) are bad, but their subordinates, the university managers who have to implement their decisions, are worse.

What’s so depressing is that this situation could be improved without the need for a full-scale REF rebellion. It’s easily sorted. Just force all institutions to submit all their researchers to the REF, declare the criteria by which they’re judging ‘world-class’ work, and allow an appeal process. Or else boycott the damn thing, and break its Stalinist grip before it wrecks what’s left of academic freedom.

Or alternatively, pile on the kind of dumb management that treats people as units of production and nurtures the system but not the front-line worker. Tell staff how inadequate they are, how they’ll have to change, how all that matters is student satisfaction and bringing in money. (What about staff satisfaction?) Keep on driving the most original, rebellious minds out of UK academia, and treat creativity as if it can be snagged by a sufficiently detailed form.

The UK’s intellectual output used to be one of our greatest contributions to world culture. Where’s the evidence that current micromanagement is improving it?

Meanwhile, demoralised academics like our unlucky Jim look set to spend ever more time performing to meet REF demands, insofar as they find time to do research at all. That means concentrating on less interdisciplinary work in more established fields, which will enhance conservatism and make academia even more fashion-driven than it is already. It also means ever fewer hours on the kind of learning, teaching and free thinking that Jim and his colleagues went into their profession to do.

If a thinktank had been paid to devise a demonstration of how not to foster UK academia, they could hardly have done a better job than this.

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