When my dad retired from his job as a high school science and IT teacher, he’d been a teacher for about twenty-five years. He was a good teacher. Though he’d had a life before teaching and came to it late, he believed that teaching was his vocation. He liked his students. He liked working at a school in the Northern Suburbs where the parents did not obsess about their children’s test scores the way they do at university-track high schools in more affluent areas. If his students were university-track, he’d lend them books from his own library to expand their ideas of what a career in the sciences could mean. If they wanted to finish year 10 and do an apprenticeship, he’d get them through their exams and let them have fun with the work.
My dad is one of the possibly millions?—don’t quote me—of boomers who went to university because Whitlam made it free; and who entered for the first time in their genealogical history the mobile middle classes by getting jobs at public schools. I would guess that 50-70% of my teachers from K-12 were members of this sub-generation. They were basically all communists. At least half of them were. Those who were not communists were social democrats. And they believed that education was transformative. They believed that studying and being a student could open up your life and show you worlds you had never imagined, because that had been their own experience of education. They were not all good at teaching, this lot, but they had their virtues.
Some of these teachers married up or bought property at just the right time in just the right place and entered the upper-middle class. Those who didn’t partner or who were responsible for under-functioning family members or who married artists or retail workers or had too many children stayed in the lower middle-class, which was only slightly more affluent than the lives they had grown up in. The difference between their lives and the lives of their parents was that they were paid to occasionally use their minds, and their thoughts and opinions and politics had addressees and a community, whereas their parents’ frustrations and social analyses were largely ignored and internalised, or flowed into religious devotion. This is an important distinction, I think.
By the time my dad retired, he said that he was just so tired. He could no longer face going to work every day. It turned out he needed a quadruple bypass, but that is neither here nor there (he’s much better now!). He was tired of the endless meetings that had nothing to do with student welfare; tired of the oppressive admin; tired of the ways in which curricula were being geared towards academic outcomes rather than the flourishing of students as human beings. He was tired of what the business model of education sapped from the dignity and autonomy of the classroom.
The nineties/early naughts was a weird time to grow up. I’m only now starting to recognise the effects of that period on the structure of my thoughts and my life. On the one hand, it seemed that if you cared about things like novels or geography you could one day become something like a school teacher, and that would be a good job. You had evidence that teaching existed and you could see what it entailed. On the other hand, the structure of our education was starting to be geared towards credentialism and professionalisation. And teaching was not a highly credentialed job (though it has since become one). Even if our parents and teachers were against that culture, against neoliberalism, it infiltrated our consciousness by osmosis; by simply being in that moment in time, we came to understand that mobility—whatever that meant—was the key to living a life. By which I mean a life that would matter. A life that would count. We were not wrong to think this—this was exactly what the neoliberal framework wanted us to believe, what it encouraged with its trail of crumbs into the dark forest of overachievement.
In that period (which is obviously not over, but allow me to use past tense for the drama of it), if you were not committed to expanding your economic or social activity, or becoming thinner or stronger, or working harder, or learning more, or winning more, then you were made to feel that you were failing. The problem was that, like capitalism, the trial of crumbs led to nowhere in particular. There was no there there. Everyone failed, because there was nothing to win. The only way you could keep ‘achieving’ was to somehow endure the breaking point unbroken; to keep going when your body was exhibiting signs of distress: major depression, bruxism, panic disorder, PTSD, migraines, tendonitis, IBS, unexplained weight gain or loss, addiction, nightmares of the most nightmarish variety. The pathologies are easy to name, because they’re visible, yet the most common symptom has no clinical name, it’s just some grim feeling between cynicism and despair.
And by ‘achieving’ I don’t even necessarily mean winning honours and amazing job titles and perfect relationships that are recognised by the state. I mean like winning a tenancy agreement for a rental property with operational drainage at an affordable price that four hundred other people applied for, or winning a salary big enough and consistent enough to not worry about which bill to prioritise in a pay cycle; or being able to pursue an education without entering poverty. That you have to be or at least be supported by a ‘high achiever’ to ‘win’ these things which should probably be available to everyone, especially in countries we are told are very well off, tells us something.
In an essay on ‘lean production’ as it relates to the business model of education, Will Jonson wrote a decade ago that: ‘Occupational stress and its attendant physical and mental breakdowns have always been risks for teachers, but in lean schools, such breakdowns are a management goal.’ There is a point to stressing a workforce: it is by pushing workers to their limits that management can identify the ‘weak links’ in the labour chain (ie human beings who very reasonably cannot cope). The weak links are sent to the glue factory, and the resilient workers—or perhaps more accurately the people who are most capable of compartmentalising their burnout, or who are bound by desperation to eat the shit—can stay. But they have to keep working more productively, to find ways to make their own jobs more efficient.
‘My demographic’ is a bit skewed towards ambitious people with rather utopian ideals, and these qualities are probably disadvantageous in the labour market, as well as in the market of spiritual satisfaction. But I don’t know many people my age who haven’t suffered at least one work-related breakdown, or unemployment breakdown, or a protracted burnout that carries on for years and years. Some of my friends are in a perennial downward spiral of ill-health—financially dependent on the only jobs they are qualified for, but which make them utterly miserable. This might not be hard data, but it is one reality.
And this is not about ‘my generation’ having been told they were precious jewels who could do or become anything, and then being crushed when they learn that they were after all just like everyone else. Children in Australia are told to get over themselves as soon as they can say the words tall poppy. It’s about neoliberalism having succeeded in taking away the ontological structures that could provide what could be considered a tolerable life. Nobody actually ever said there were no limits to a young person’s life. But they did say, by example, that you could do a general arts or science degree and then after you got fed up of your work as a social worker or draftsman or copywriter, or you found that you were not suited to writing a research thesis, you could always go back and do a Dip Ed. I’m sure that that is still possible, though now it’s a Masters, though now the job is a very different job—and much harder—than it was for my dad’s generation.
Dad’s job was often stressful and the pay was never enough. During his working life, he saw teaching become less valued by each successive government. Being underpaid and overworked, and seeing that you and your students were being objectified by politicians waging ideological wars was enough of a reason to be a part of a union and to strike when necessary. But while teaching was not always a ‘good job’, it was better than a lot of jobs around then, and better than most jobs are now. He—my dad—didn’t actually burn out until the last five years of his career, after he was 60, just as the business model of education well and truly took over. He got almost two decades of full-time work that didn’t ask for his entire being— had a few friends from work, but his workplace wasn’t ‘his family’. He already had one of those, as well as friends and hobbies that had nothing to do with work. Now retired, Dad plays his sax and goes on bike rides with a gang of postmenopausal cycle enthusiasts and is building a canoe from wood scraps. I am finding it rather bleak to define as a good job a job that was never adequately valued in the first place. But this job, teacher at a public school circa nineteen ninety-five, is now what anyone my age would describe as a ‘good job’, and which we are certain might not actually exist anymore.
Good job: allows you to cook dinner for your kids and support an underemployed, overworked partner and take them all on camping trips during the holidays (nb comes with holidays). Good job: doesn’t incur odd health problems; no need to weep miserably at work; need not apply for the same position every term or go on centrelink during the holidays (the way many teachers now must).
Good job: job that doesn’t require its workers to be masochists.
I discovered last year that I’m not a masochist. Not at all. I thought I was—and I was very mildly proud of that. I was rewarded for being one in a few areas of my life, and I privately clung to that identity far beyond the term of its usefulness. I discovered that I didn’t want to be burnt out, not again, not ever, which was a moment of recognising that I’d have to give up some of my ambitions. Giving up trying to be better than I am at many things also meant having to give up the imaginary goodies I would attain when I achieved those vague, untethered goals. If I took myself out of the race, I would not be in the running to win it. The dawning of this realisation was the realisation that the ‘prize’ would most likely be a panic disorder and a new series of exaggerated expectations. That is a bad prize and I don’t want it!
Since I started working less, or at least working without a sense of diligent, puritanical masochism, I’ve finally stopped having the recurring argument Dom and I had all through our relationship from the beginning: him asking me at 10pm to stop working and look at him; me telling him to stop trying to turn me into a tradwife with no professional ambitions. I like work! I would say. You are extremely stressed all the time! he would reply. Then I would throw a fistful of papers in the air and wail like a dying animal.
I still love working. Finishing things will never stop feeling monumental. But I’ve stopped doing some of the internalised, highly private labour that is a by-product of lean ideology. I’ve stopped engaging with social media so much—which is work, creating content for our Silicon Valley overlords—except for the occasional Instagram exchange with a reader (bless them) or a Facebook exchange with the owner of a trinket I wish to purchase from Marketplace. I no longer bleach my fridge every Saturday (it really doesn’t have to be that clean?). I’ve stopped trying to cook and eat like I am some sort of live-in professional chef for myself (falafels delivered to the apartment are fine any time of day). I do my paid work, now, at the last minute and the quality of the work is, frankly, much the same as it was when I spread it across my whole life (ie I have accepted the limits of my capabilities). I’ve stopped trying to control the number of spare light bulbs there are in the bottom kitchen drawer, because the lightbulbs were not assuaging my sense of doom or inadequacy.
I’m sorry if this all sounds a bit tragic, but I am overjoyed at having become reacquainted with a part of myself that I had come to believe was illegal and needed to be suppressed, which is that I am an extremely lazy person, I would love nothing more than to never move my body again, and my only real ambition is to one day write a really good book, an ambition so vague it should not intrude on my day-to-day wellbeing.
‘Work less’ is not a solution to the mass burnout situation. Everyone has to find a way to earn money, and work itself can be very satisfying when it uses and expands a person’s capabilities. But I do think that if every single worker in every rich capitalist economy told their bosses that they would be happy to do the labour they had been contracted for but they would prefer not to work past the point of illness or humiliation, and then refused to do that, just refused! And stopped working out so much, and stopped calorie counting, and stopped relentlessly pursuing spiritual and domestic hygiene—in other words, stopped watching themselves being watched, weighed, judged, and found wanting. If that happened all on the same day, I believe that total mayhem would ensue. It would be the finest day on earth.
(When the tattoo shops open this summer, I’m going to get a new tattoo. It says:
I would prefer not to.
From Bartleby. Please send font recommendations for text tattoos.)