Professionalism and Careers: What They Don’t Tell You

What does it mean to be professional, as an employee? Doing something you are told, on time, of your own initiative without being a nuisance while being open-minded enough to give suggestions when you think the work that was assigned to you had some issues? Another aspect was to learn to “market” or “brand” yourself as a possessor of a particular set of skills that would enable you to obtain flexible employment. At least, that’s how I saw it. I did things thinking that flexible employment means consultancies whereby I would not have to go to an office everyday, that I could pick and choose projects (I am a researcher, so something like data analysis, reports for non-profits, editing articles, etc) that I would really like to work on. I thought to myself, “a career is a 20th century invention” (ever read ‘Into the Wild’?). An invention by companies so that they don’t have to deal with attrition. Now there is evidence to show that moving from one company to another gives you a better payday than staying in one place (by no means, conclusive of course, but the numbers are compelling and intuitive). So companies would actually be losing millions in finding replacements, training new recruits and overpaying in terms of salaries if you get a better deal. This is often the line used in business media and we (especially those of us trained only in one particular school of Economics) lap it up as the gospel truth. Notice that the cost to company and the pay that you get are forces acting in opposite directions. It is in the company’s interests to underpay you. Why do you support this as an employee? Because we are also told that we need to work more to earn more and that we need to learn negotiation skills. If we do that, we can be managers and then CEOs earning 50-1000 times more than your employees. Of course, this is the very essence of the ‘American Dream’ that is sold as fact everywhere in the world. It is not just in a select few cutting edge sectors in the ‘new economy’ anymore, but in all sectors of organised or formal employment. I even experienced milder versions of it in my experience working with non-profits/think tanks. The rules at my own workplaces were kinder though.

This sort of employment is still only a small share of total employment, let alone the huge number that is unemployed across the world. But my point is that, this is the best that an average person who was born into relatively stable circumstances can hope for. What is termed as flexible also means that there is no social security. I recall a recent conversation I had with a potential employer who presented their lack of social security options over a short term contract as opportunity to plan my own taxes instead of paying a sum as Tax Deducted at Source (TDS). Frankly, with India’s new GST laws, I panicked.

There is a lovely book that connected the insecurity of modern employment with the ‘corrosion’ of one’s character called ‘The Corrosion of Character: Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism’ by noted sociologist, Richard Sennett. In the book, Sennett presents an ethnographic study of Enrico, son of Rico whom he had written about several decades ago. Rico was an immigrant in the USA, who worked as a janitor all his life while Enrico was working for a respected MNC, but lost his job because of a recession. In the first chapter, Enrico talks about work-life balance and blames his situation on himself though he had very little to do with what had happened. He wonders about spending time with his wife and children, about paying for having to move around often because they switch jobs frequently and other challenges in the ‘new economy’. It is a study of remarkable depth, a narrative that goes beyond anything that conventional economics, sociology or anthropology offers. While it inspired me to look at my own research differently, it did much more to challenge my own naive outlook on how much control we have over our own lives in the modern capitalist economy.

My centre in University primarily studies informal employment in India. If you are in a learning mood, check out all the stats here. Otherwise, I have written about it before here and here. Basically, close to 85% of India’s employment is vulnerable and insecure. Those of us who are writing and reading things on social media are most likely to end up in relatively more secure, better paid, organised employment. The conditions that I spoke of above are exhibited there. That is the best that we can hope for as human beings.

Why are we OK with such a system? We are not really OK with it, but most of know that we need to do something to have a decent standard of life. Unless we challenge some of the basic tenets of this new economy, like the ‘profit motive’ or ‘wages as a cost’ or ‘productivity and efficiency over welfare’, ‘competition over co-operation’, we will never have a decent standard of living. In fact, our actions would actively push us in the opposite direction. Another problem is that the recognition of this fact is seen as pessimistic. It is one to harbour hope and optimism in life, which I highly encourage, but quite another to let delusion and hubris created by marketing and branding exercises obscure the facts of a harsh economy and a vile society captured by an elite polity. One must fight such ideas that keep us repressed.

As a trained economist, I wholeheartedly disagree with my training. I do not believe in an economy that is built on tenets like productivity, efficiency, competition and profits. Our duty as human beings is to work together to build better quality lives for everyone. That requires co-operation, kindness and empathy. Blind ‘economism‘ by elites have derailed the progress that we were making and is taking us in a direction to the detriment of most of us for the benefit of a few. Only questioning this madness will lead us to the light.


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