Liberté, Egalité, Precarité: or, how a quest for flexibility creates a “busy culture”

I'm late! I'm late!

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

At a school such as Wheaton, where there are ample opportunities for a small and motivated student body, there is a pervasive culture of busy. This idea has been a darling of the media since the early 2010s, garnering critique in The New York TimesThe Huffington Post, and Fast Company. I didn’t realize that it was a “thing” until my sophomore year — when I’d felt like I had so much free time that I completely over-scheduled myself. This, of course, didn’t change anything about my mode of operation. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m bragging about my schedule, but I provide it below to give context. Among my friends, my commitment level is average (I’d like to think this illustrates the company I keep). In mocking this up, I discovered that I’ve scheduled myself a single half hour of free time a week, not counting sleep, showering, and pit stopping for meals. And I just hung up the phone on my dad, claiming I was “too busy to talk.”

carpe diem?

my schedule, fall 2015

When you arrive at college, the Big Guys tell you that you’ll be treated to much more free time than you had in high school. We take on the task of scheduling our free time ourselves, with no one telling us what to specifically do with it. We take on responsibility for all of our work and the looming deadlines we face; no one is liable for our failures or success. Those who are traditionally “successful” block it out down to the minute and are constantly working on the next thing.

I feel as if this all serves as an allegory for the assigned precarity of creative workers. I consider the college student a creative worker already. We are all writers, at the very least, and we find ourselves often being artists, or people in tech, or communicators.

In Mark Deuze’s Media Work, he paraphrases Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: “work is the normal state of all humans; not working is abnormal.” (1) The creative worker often adapts their life, with the flexible hours they fought so hard for, to be one that involves working all the time. Being a college student is the ultimate in embodying a “workstyle,” especially in residential communities such as ours. We’re always told not to “shit where we eat,” but how can we when we live where we work? There is no set time we spend away from our daily tasks or the buildings where we do our jobs. Students are portfolio workers, picking up all their things and leaving after finishing four gigs a semester, to start four new ones the next semester. Deuze aptly describes the “constant uprooting and repotting of the ways in which workstyles are structured and experienced.” (10) Because: like every boss has a different style, every professor has a different way they teach. We are contract workers, and possibly even interns — we take on jobs to get the experience, not monetary gain. If we want to learn more, we use the rest of our free time in other gigs: clubs, activities, etc. And eventually, we graduate. College is the ultimate project. We start it to finish; we come here to leave.

Back to the real thing — this quest for flexibility puts creative workers in the precariat, a neologism coined by British professor Guy Standing. This emerging social class is unable to form an identity because they are constantly going from one thing to the next, and they are mostly made up of the young and educated (which overlaps with the “creative class” as a whole). We’d like to believe that flexibility gives more time to work, but instead it becomes flux, with increasing globalization, opportunities are limited — “people are disempowered and social relations break down”. (21)

Deuze, Mark. Media Work. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.
Standing, Guy. “The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class.” Policy Network. Policy Network, 24 May 2011. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
Smoczyński, Wawrzyniec. “Economic Crisis: Youthful Members of the Full-time Precariat.” VoxEurop. OVH, 15 Sept. 2011. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
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