I recently wrote an article on casualised academia for the IWW. This can be found here:
In it I argue that this level of labour can be viewed as a caste not a class. But there is another aspect to living in my caste that happens outside the university, and that is my daily attempts to get out of my caste.
Occasionally those statistics appear in the media that seem invented only to serve journalism:
‘137.3 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016. … Minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) were the most common…’
These statistics are often allied to an editorial that blasts the ‘workshy’ for taking ‘sickies’.
Here’s another kind of statistic you sometimes see, but only when the state wants to announce a new day of prosperity, like notices about increases in tractor production in the former Soviet Union:
Job Vacancies in the United Kingdom ‘increased to 818 Thousand in April from 806 Thousand in March of 2018’.
I’m interested in these statistics partly because what information they provide always covers the information that they don’t give. I have been monitoring the stupefying amount of time I put into job applications recently.
First, let’s look at some job vacancy figures in Britain. Let’s take a low estimate of 800,000 job vacancies per month in Britain and multiply it by the twelve months in the year. This comes to 9600000 job vacancies.
Many jobs shortlist between four and six people, so let’s take a median of five per vacancy and assuming that one of those applicants gets the job, we can also assume that the time of four people is wasted with each interview.
So, if we then multiply the vacancies by four – which is to discount the unwasted time of the successful applicant – we get 38400000. If we multiply that by the three hours on average it is estimated people take on job applications, we get 115,200,000 wasted hours.
One hundred and fifteen million, two hundred thousand, wasted hours per year. But this is a huge underestimation, and it is a picture of the jobs market as a whole and not just in my sector.
I spend at least a day on academic job applications. I research the university I am applying to. I try to sense the departmental structure from outside. I try to get a sense of its prejudice and bend myself to fit into their positive image: I do exactly what the union unconsciously does when it politely negotiates with HR.
Ivor Southwood writes about the emotional labour that goes into the application and interview and my rough calculations don’t even figure that in. There is the time taken out to attend an interview, the best part of a day is always knocked out, sometimes much more, sometimes it involves an overnight stay.
The real figure will be utterly mind-warping, but I am erring on the conservative. Someone I know went for a job recently. They had taken the decision to interview over two days and to interview eleven people each day. If twenty-two people spent an average of three hours on each application for one job, that means sixty-six hours of application work. Eight and a quarter working days, plus the two days of interview, is ten and a quarter wasted working days, just for one job.
It’s pointless recalculating up to scale using that example, as it is an extreme one, but it serves to show that my estimations of hours wasted are on the low side.
It might be tempting at this point to suggest that perhaps capitalism doesn’t work because all this competition is a huge waste of time: All of that labour going into pointless activities. But actually, it’s the opposite. Capitalism works precisely through this system of symbolic human sacrifice.
All of that labour is going into preparing irrational humans for the labour market, preparing themselves in their own time. Kneading their brains into compliance through an exemplification of the scarcity of opportunities to sell one’s labour.
It polices them, by disappointing them regularly, it makes them hungry for labour. I say develop the opposite mental attitude, that of ‘Ne Travillez Jamais’.
Another thing to consider here is the thing that everyone knows, but which never makes the media pop-statistical drop in. The dirty secret that jobs often go to people’s friends and relatives, and to people already ‘well in’, who ‘have their feet under the table’ and whatever other folk wisdom terms you care to use.
This includes jobs which are advertised and interviewed for as per guidance, but which will inevitably go to someone who has already provided a considerable amount of free labour to that job.
The key point to make here is that these vast amounts of wasted hours are often not going into a well-ordered competition, in which a neutral meritocracy is being exercised.
All those little rules about having to advertise jobs and put out to tender. The little disclaimers to be found within application forms, online or otherwise, ‘do you have relatives working here?’
I went for a fixed-term Senior Lecturer role at one of the big northern universities. I was tipped off by a friend, and the management were given the wink by her. It was in a subject I knew little about. I was told to ‘go for it anyway’. At interview, I diligently pointed out again, that this was not my subject. I got the job.
When I turned up for work on my first day, my line manager said ‘ah, you came to us through Jane didn’t you?’
More recently I went through a completely fake round of interviews for a temporary post. Everyone knew I was the only candidate. I had been given the nod as a ‘good person’, by the outgoing lecturer.
This is the weird curveball physics within the permafrost of the caste system.
But even this doesn’t work: I am outspoken and critical and write articles like this one; someone giving someone else ‘the nod’ is about as useful a recruitment technique as palmistry.
There will be serious discomfort for many university seniors who have read this far, discomfort when I say that their daughters, sons, relatives and friends are being handed work and whole positions around the back of any meritocratic system shakily in place.
In my more extreme moments, I wish none of those systems applied. I wish that companies could hire through whatever prejudices or social networks they have.
Because they often do anyway, not always, but often enough that I can give you personal examples, both in terms of how I have benefited and lost out from this fraudulent system.
Just imagine if there were a recruitment free-for-all. Suddenly everyone would be disabused of the fake notion that the game is being played straight. Then there would be trouble. Real trouble. But then there might be real change.
However, as it stands the whole system is a sick but functioning punishment-reward relationship with sadist capitalism: This is the real ‘sickie’ that everyone is taking.
Now I am eyeing the tunnel at the end of the light that is Brexit. I am wondering how my situation vis a vis my employment status may change in the future.
But this article centres on my personal problems far too much. The real tragedy here is that humans organise themselves in such a wasteful way at a point in history when that is completely hazardous.