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White collar creep
Posted by Tony on 27th December 2009 at 13:37:40
This is about systems, about feedback loops, about unintended consequences. It is not about judging individuals. If it is read that way I'd be well up the list being criticised, but, at least on this occasion, I'm not trying to be self-deprecating. This is much too important for such indulgences.

What I'm concerned about here is the systemic pressures towards normalising white collar work as the natural aspiration of young people. Let me start by explaining how this has happened.

Today's opinion leaders are overwhelmingly white collar careerists. Academics, entertainment media*, political staffers, advertising and marketing, and, at a more personal level, school teachers, clergy and association administrators, all of whom fall towards the clerical end of the employment spectrum. Those who work using their hands or their bodies need extraordinary (artistic or sporting) talent before anybody notices their existence, let alone sees them as role models for a life well lived. The tradies have disappeared from the radar, at least until you start to count up how many you know personally and how many of them are actually doing very well.

In the state where I live, the first woman premier, Joan Kirner, is an old family friend. As with too many others, she was handed a poisoned chalice in the dying days of a tired government, something which should never distract from her many other achievements. But my mother, also a teacher and also a Joan, always maintained that as a former teacher, Joan Kirner made a bad choice as education minister, specifically the elimination of technical schools as an alternative direction for 12 year old boys. Through a brief stint teaching myself well before all that happened, it was obvious that, even if I got on well with them individually, there was a small portion of 12 year old boys whose mission at that stage of their life was to disrupt the process for everybody else. Thanks to the likes of both Joans, there has been a lot of progress on gender opportunity in the intervening years, so this is no longer specific to males, but there is ever less doubt in my mind that we need non-clerical options to be visible to youngsters at all ages and we definitely should not be forcing anyone to stay on an academic track for a minute longer than they are keen to be there themselves. But that also means we have to open up opportunities that have been closed by the likes of originally well-intended child labour laws, which nowadays are mostly about protecting less competent "adult" workers from legitimate competition.

A step beyond the trades we get to the other great use of labour in times past and places distant, food production. Here the argument should be even easier. Broad hectare monoculture agriculture, guided by a misdirected quest for economic efficiency and the lie of growth through acquisition, is central to the environmental disasters we are extending into the new millennium. "Food comes from supermarkets" (in the quest of saving a few cents, spent twice over on related transport costs, especially if we place any value on our own time and health) is arguably our most destructive meme. Youngsters need to be aware from the very beginning that food comes from plants and animals. They need to be involved, at worst second hand through friends and family, in that process and to see farm work as still a lot more worthy than law or accounting which at their best produce nothing more than unentertaining fictions. Most importantly we need the farm gate price of food to start to reflect its real worth.

Re-engagement with the land done right will re-energise indigenous cultures and continue developing the potential of the most urgent of my current community interests, local environmentally-focused groups who are developing a necessary role as non-traditional owners. But to get real progress here, we will need to get serious about revaluing all forms of work in ways that recent studies have started to hint at. While the writing may be clearly on the wall for CEOs, it will take some serious social movement to knock the last zero off the fee expectations of lawyers and accountants, even while their nett value remains well below that zero. And, at least in this still booming lucky country, even the tradies could use a trim so we can break the hold of the unnatural shortage of skills and land use policies which keep the price of accommodation disproportionately high.

How might we start to reverse the while collar premium, at least in expectations, even before we worry too much about actual rewards? It might be easiest to start with a peripheral attack on the shameful economics of care, be it for post-village youngsters, those with serious health impairments, the (often momentarily) socially dysfunctional, or the deteriorating aged. Caring for others in megacities in the post-nuclear (family) age is a huge mess torn by conflicting systemic demands. Foucault may have had the first word on institutions, but nobody has come forward with any solutions between the need for reasons of service delivery efficiency to make our schools, hospitals, prisons and nursing homes ever bigger at the inevitable cost of exposing care recipients to problem multipliers through contact with other inmates even more damaging that unruly 12 year old boys. And that is before we start worrying about what the accompanying social isolation does to the always under-rewarded carers. If we see no choice but to continue to outsource village care to purported authorities, we need to at least insist that the same portion of our productive output is devoted to that care as traditionally was in human-sized villages, even before we factor in the increased costs that are byproducts of the successes of medical technology and those elements of political correctness that may be justified to ensure the reasonable functioning of megacities.

You may wonder where, in this belatedly maligned territory of white collar clerical work, have all the true clerks gone? In the quarter century since our crowd positioned ourselves at the leading edge of promoting computer literacy, our beloved computers have enabled the clerical work to be outsourced to the coal face workers as almost everybody is increasingly burdened with demands of compliance reporting. It is the number one complaint of teachers, police and almost anybody else you ask whose job specification now includes access to a desk and computer or mobile terminal, even while information technology nibbles at the edge by automating what it can of the data collection. We once called this kind of reporting expectation "information tax", a meme which surely needs urgent revival. In the language of labour relations, this is the "productivity dividend" of wringing more and more out of workers for non-commensurate reward. Or maybe this is all really just another symptom of our wider failure to account for externalities.

*Today's news media are best understood as a compliant subset of entertainment media.

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White collar creep - Tony 13:37:40 27-Dec-09
George has a solution - Tony 05:14:07 25-May-10
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