Preparing for Stockholm 15/3: What we learned so far about making a living and making sense

For three weeks now we’ve been hosting a discussion on how young and not so young people in Europe are coping with the challenges of making a living and making sense of their working lives, much of it against the backdrop of the global crisis aftermath. If you missed parts of it, you can now glimpse through this summary. I recommend reading the original pieces, the quality of all contributions is very high. Thank you Dougald, Christopher, Nadia, Alek, Natalia, Petros, Noel, Bridget, Arin, Eimhin, Andrei and those of you reacting on twitter.

Edgeryders and Global Challenge welcome more contributions. A limited number of commentators will be rewarded with a paid ticket to the upcoming workshop in Stockholm (March 15th) where they can prepare an extended version of their contributions and possibly publish them in a book.

We can agree by now that youth unemployment is complex and is not isolated in economic workings, even when the concept of “work” remains dominant of our conception of existence. So to really understand it we need to look at broader dynamic contexts, and while we wait for prescribed, conventional, magical solutions we are paying more attention to where young and not so young people choose to put in their time and talent, and what makes sense for them.

In his post, Dougald looks at the search for meaning of participators in the social and economic lives of their societies. Irrespective of how we make a living, it comes down to how satisfied we are with the answers we give ourselves to all three questions below. When answers become obsolete, human beings can break, no matter if they’re working middle aged men with relative financial security or young graduates with no security at all.

  1. Economic/Practical: How do I pay the rent?
  2. Social/Psychological: Who am I in the eyes of others?
  3. Directional: What do I get out of bed for in the morning? And where do I see myself in the future?

We know that ways to go about and meet those needs are not the same for today’s younger generations as they were for their parents, starting with the clear fact that there is no “workforce to enter”, so one immediately gets stuck at the first one. Even with a conventional job, the financial rewards and social recognition are misallocated, in that most often people doing the hardest or more valuable work to society are those at the bottom of the ladder. What’s needed, in the words of Christopher, is to radically rethink the chain: “you need an education, in order to get a job, and then be able to feed yourself, house yourself, and have value in the eyes of others”.

In the face of very poor deals that the “unemployed” or the “precariat” are given (deeply flawed mental categories we use), all authors at Edgeryders look at islands of change, examples of “substituting for employment” to derive a sense of social identity and meet practical needs. For some like Petros, the most important thing is to find meaning in your life, and things have their own ways once you arrive at that.

These unconventional solutions are plenty and we’re looking to continuously update the list… Center for New Work with rotating work schedules instead of letting people off, Access Space, the UK’s longest-running free internet learning centre, West Norwood Feast with its community-owned and -run street market, Steve Lawson selling downloads of his albums on a pay-as-you-want basis, the unMonastery as intentional community and intermediary between local institutions and community needs, campaigning to protect urban spaces, like the Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin,  building homes for the homeless in Stockholm in disused spaces, Freelab in rural Poland educating local community in hemp growing or building rocket stoves, the decentralized commons production models…  In post-Soviet countries and probably in post-communist as well, a hackers’ and do-it-yourself culture is already in place or getting reactivated easier, as Alek suggests. Back in the days people had learned to get around, cater for themselves and others to cope with everyday life hardships.

Where is the role of the state in all this? Some believe that when economic, social and cultural institutions fail, the necessity is to build parallel institutions in the form of alternative social systems (see Vaclav Benda’s Parallel Polis), with new ways of acting and being. But a point that’s been made is that this sort of innovation needs more leverage to go past an intellectual alternative; what we need is to leverage the state, that these alternative systems can’t really replace the minimum security provided by (at least) European states, and its large machinery that regulates exchanges or redistributes wealth. Also, what happens if none of the radical solutions are large scale response that can touch that 50% youth unemployment?

Another big question mark remains as to what would happen when two parallel, fundamentally different systems are in place, and their interest groups may need to cooperate or confront for the use of resources and their dependency on one another. For Eimhin, the solution is somewhere in between these two groups, because we are actually seeing a bigger cultural shift, fostered by intermediaries and a “decisive technology”. The question is how to better support this future-building exercise, as opposed to growing less tolerant of our radical innovators.