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Life Choices:
Vocation in a Casualised Work World

How to be an Academic by Inger Mewburn review
How to be an academic
by Inger Mewburn
NewSouth
288pp
$24.99 AU
Published September, 2017
ISBN 9781742235073

Some time over the last few decades, the term ‘vocation’ slipped quietly out of fashion. When was this? Perhaps the 1980s or 1990s, for I distinctly remember that at my high school in the 1970s we were occasionally invited to see the ‘vocational guidance counsellor’. Not that I ever went; I had decided on my first day of kindergarten that I would be a teacher and I stuck stolidly to this course, notwithstanding an eleventh-hour wobble at age seventeen, when I was accepted into medicine and many of my friends were taking up similar offers. Maybe I was singularly unimaginative, or stubborn, or overly influenced by my family background, since both my parents were educators. If so, this heritage must have been powerful stuff, as most of my siblings have also gone on to be teachers in one form or another. Perhaps I was just fearful – sticking with what I knew. But maybe – just maybe – I had a vocation.

‘By the time we commence our careers, perhaps in our early 20s, we are mostly already predisposed and prepared to conduct them along predictable lines,’ writes Kerr Inkson, author of a book on the metaphors we use to think about careers. A career is a kind of inheritance, he says, a set of predispositions, capacities and values that owes much to our parentage, our genetics and our social situation. Our ‘career inheritance’ is what allows us, for example, to note casually that many of our friends were accepting offers into medicine.

Inkson’s discussion of agency and career ‘choice’ contains a glittering little jewel: the research finding that people named Dennis or Denise are overrepresented among dentists. I followed that sparkly trail back to the source – a study by three SUNY academic psychologists of the role of so-called ‘implicit egotism’ in major life choices. It turns out that many grownups are really just kids in bigger clothes. We tend to prefer the letters in our own name and the numbers in our birthday. These provide more than just a meaningless subterranean buzz of pleasure. The tiny feel-good stimuli we receive from these letters and numbers actually have statistically detectable behavioural consequences: some of us unconsciously make major life choices that reflect them. We are disproportionately likely to live in places that resemble our names. All those Louis living in St Louis or those Denises of Denver take note.

Our unconscious is not formed in a social vacuum though: a Japanese study of unmarried students found that the name-letter effect is stronger for men’s last names and for women’s first names. The authors surmise that young Japanese women, expecting that they will change their family name on marriage, unconsciously attach more value to the name they will keep all their life. Names are intimate, but also social and political. Anyone whose name doesn’t translate well into another language, let alone another alphabet, will recognise that it is easier for some people than others to recognise their personal name in that of a city or country.

Presumably some of us grow up, but I am pretty sure that for me certain numbers and letters do glimmer just a little more than their peers: the number 6 (number of members of my childhood family) or 4 (number of children in that family). I don’t think I’m particularly keen on RB – at least, not in a statistically significant way — but I’m prepared to believe that my fuller initials – RMB – might have some subtle mind-altering quality, since I have never forgotten my mother pointing out during a year spent in rural England that they were imprinted on every scarlet Royal Mail Box. Have I made life ‘choices’ based on these magical numbers and letters? I don’t know, but one evening I’ll get out a calendar and a glass of wine and play Autobiographical Boggle to find out.

This quirky psychological study poses a seductive challenge to the idea of Life Choices; it could serve as a corrective in moments when we might be foolish enough to believe that we are in control. As the authors succinctly conclude: the idea that we might make major decisions under the influence of our name, initials or birth-date ‘stands in sharp contrast to many models of rational choice’.

Models of rational choice are part of the ‘science’ that underpins the theory, practice and commerce of career counselling. ‘From its earliest beginnings,’ write career theory experts Peter McIlveen and Wendy Patton, ‘vocational psychology has been deeply committed to logical-positive science’. The foundational text of career guidance – Frank Parsons’s Choosing a Vocation (1909) — begins with a chapter on ‘The Importance of Scientific Method’. It advocates various forms of cognitive and sensory testing and observation embedded within a fuller professional protocol aimed at helping the young person make a ‘wise selection’. This protocol takes a rather austere-sounding Socratic self-scrutiny as its base. So serious is Parsons about the need for rigorous and unflinching ‘self-study’ that he recommends the young person be given a tutorial in comprehension and analysis, practising on a written text before she or he is let loose to play in the wilder woods of self-analysis. A detailed questionnaire follows, then an interview, then the administration of ‘scientific’ tests. Through all this, the ‘careful counselor’ can read much between the lines. Parsons saw career selection as the most important decision of a person’s life, with the possible exception of choosing a husband or wife, and he was astonished that his turn-of-the-century society offered young people little help in making it.

Parsons was a social reformer with first-hand experience of the devastating impact of economic downturns, having lost his first job in the 1873 Long Depression. Perhaps that is why some of his rationale for the importance of effective career guidance could have been lifted straight from Marx. His description of the enervated, half-empty existence of the person whose authentic life has been pushed to the margins by mundane work echoes Marx’s account of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Parsons was an advocate of market reform, but in Choosing a Vocation he focuses on the importance of working through the ‘vital problems’ of matching people to jobs ‘in a careful, scientific way’, claiming that a harmonious fit between worker and work lies at the heart of the worker’s personal and economic success. A man doing work for which he is ill-suited ‘will be only a fraction of the man he ought to be’. Wise choosing, under expert guidance, is the rational, effective and efficient solution to the problem of drift.

Parsons is considered the father of vocational guidance, and his ideal of rational, scientific, systematic consideration of the evidence (he was initially an engineer, having entered Cornell at fifteen – though he went on to be a labourer, a teacher and a lawyer) was to be influential. According to McIlveen and Patton, the profession of career guidance to which he arguably gave birth has since its inception been committed to an idea of the careers counsellor as a ‘scientist-practitioner’ wielding the objective instruments of his trade – nowadays, typically psychometric tests – and matching the results with another of the discipline-profession’s ‘notable achievements’: ‘the comprehensive classification of occupations’.

This image of the careers counsellor as rational expert was made famous in Monty Python’s ‘Vocational Guidance Counsellor’ skit – a sketch that sealed in six minutes flat the image of accountants as catastrophically boring. A suited, authoritative John Cleese returns psychometric test results to a bespectacled and fussy Michael Palin, crisply pronouncing his fate: Chartered Accountancy. ‘But I am a chartered accountant!’, objects the client. What he really wants to be is a lion tamer. He can’t possibly be one, though, because the tests show that he is superlatively qualified to be a chartered accountant:

Our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful.

When the would-be lion tamer protests his fate, the Cleese character softens the blow by suggesting he ease the transition via an intermediate career in banking. In the end, timidity conquers romantic dreaming and the accountant backs away. The experts are right. He is a perfect fit for chartered accountancy.

Fit is one of several metaphors used by career counsellors. Inkson claims that the metaphors used in everyday language to describe careers and career experiences (the rat race, the corporate ladder, playing the game, and so on) form recognisable patterns. His book Understanding Careers: The Metaphors of Working Lives features nine of these. In addition to ‘fit’, he analyses the metaphors of inheritances, cycles, actions, journeys, roles, relationships, resources, and stories. If this sounds like the kind of classificatory methodology used within career counselling itself, that may be no accident. But conspicuously absent from this list of metaphors, and indeed from the book as a whole, is vocation.

Vocation is an old word originating in vocare — to call. According to the OED, it is the post-classical Latin version of the earlier word ‘calling’. Calling’s spiritual meaning dates back as far as 1250:

Divine prompting to accept salvation or to serve God; an inner feeling or conviction that one has been called by God in this way. Hence more generally: any strong conviction that one should follow a particular way of life or course of action.

Many of its old secular meanings suggest the caller’s power. To call on someone meant to visit, as it does today, but it could also mean to command someone or to use animal sounds to attract prey during hunting.

When God the hunter called, it was better not to resist. The Gospel story of the rich man who refused to heed the call (camels, eye of a needle, kingdom of heaven and all that) illustrated the otherworldly cost of turning away. But vocation had worldly benefits too: it helped set your path. Bound to serve, you were ripe for exploitation, but you were also gifted an identity, a mission, a place, a community and a sense of meaning. You were protected – held secure in material and ontological space by a community of fellows and their institutions and the soothing, predictable rhythms and rituals that ordered their days. If this sounds something like prison, we might recall Michel Foucault’s description of the ‘forms of coercion’ derived from monastic life that became the modern prison’s corrective apparatus: ‘time-tables, compulsory movements, regular activities, solitary meditation, work in common, silence, application, respect, good habits.’ These ‘schemata of constraint, applied and repeated’ are simultaneously coercing and enabling. If thoroughly internalised, they shelter us from the perturbations of what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls ‘ontological anxiety.’

Except, of course, that they don’t – at least, not fully. Converse honestly with any priest, nun or monk and you will learn that vocation is not a free ride. It is a discipline – something that has to be worked on and renewed. Most true believers experience agonising doubt or despair. St Augustine’s Confessions are the archetypal Christian expression of this inner struggle. They are, as David Watson puts it, ‘dramatic, because even though they have a happy ending, certainty is still kept trembling by the running shock-waves of doubt’.

Vocation is serious business, not to be trifled with. It implies not only a deep and stabilising personal identity, but a commitment to something bigger – a transcendent being, principle or value. This force can’t be seen – calling is an aural metaphor not a visual one – and it is perhaps all the more powerful for that.

Today, there exist a number of secular conceptions of vocation that recognise and echo its traditional association with other-directedness, social obligation, and transcendent meaning. God still calls to some, but others are moved by worldly forces, needs or principles. Today’s theorists of vocation distinguish ‘neo-classical’ conceptions, which, according to two of them, R.D. Duffy and B.J. Dik, emphasise ‘a sense of destiny and prosocial duty’, from more contemporary and individualistic conceptions that focus on ‘an inner drive towards self-fulfillment or personal happiness’. The religious connotations of the concept no longer sit comfortably in many professional contexts. Even in those contemporary professions where it was most frequently invoked – teaching and nursing – it has suffered a major terminological decline. Indeed, it is allegedly fading from use even in religious institutions.

Not everyone laments this loss. To those who have no truck with religion, vocation is a conceptual and rhetorical remnant, musty as an old book. Left-leaning critics are especially unlikely to have an interest in promoting the purposeful but sacrificial ideal this term denotes. Cultural theorist Bruce Robbins, for example, believes that ‘we’, by which I think he means intellectuals, are torn between a remnant belief in the value of work and a modern fear of ‘the ultimate meaninglessness of work’. He sees vocation as having bequeathed us a ‘nightmare’, in which today’s secular professionals want more than ‘empty technical competence’, but find themselves unable to ‘fill in the blanks’ left by the absent caller.

In celebrating meaningful, satisfying work, are we setting most people up for disappointment? The ideal of purposeful creative labour, and the concept of life-as-project into which it so easily fits, is after all a privileged aspiration, unthinkable to those whose work affords experiences only of drudgery, routine or brute survival. Yet vernacular and marketing discourses increasingly promote these ideals, often utilising that most fundamental of western narrative archetypes – that of the individual’s journey towards self-realisation. Nike’s career webpage, for example, proclaims: ‘At Nike, every employee is an explorer.’ Nike also plays with the well-established metaphor of career fit, promoting its various employment pathways under the heading ‘Find Your Fit’.

When employers – be they corporations, schools, hospitals or universities – wield these metaphors, they speak simultaneously to a legitimate human search for meaning and purpose and to the corporate desire for dedicated (over)workers. Is this mere exploitation? Perhaps not, since meaningful work brings benefits to the worker, being correlated empirically with psychological health and life satisfaction. But employers also reap significant benefits. Having highly skilled people prepared to work long unpaid hours just because they ‘love it’, who set the bar higher and higher, is an employer’s gift from God.

Vocation’s corporate usefulness is suggested in the recent upsurge of interest in vocation or calling in the academic disciplines of management and industrial–organisational psychology. ‘Retention’ is a contemporary managerial preoccupation – the logical if somewhat paradoxical-sounding result of the need to retain good staff in an era in which young workers have realised that, in the absence of employer loyalty to employees, they have to look after number one. Understanding calling and commitment seems like a good way to work out how to keep talented staff from abandoning ship whenever a better offer comes along.

In the academy, however, jumping ship has traditionally been all but unthinkable, largely because university life used to afford so many pleasures, satisfactions and protections. So new and counter-intuitive is the phenomenon of academics actively choosing to leave the system that it has generated its own mini-genre – the so-called ‘Quit Lit,’ in which a prominent successful academic or a promising young scholar announces his or her departure in a spectacular public renunciation of the contemporary university.

For those who remain, a vocational relation to work is the visible but unspeakable bulwark of the entire system, which relies in very great measure on the overwork of the permanent employees anxious to stay on and the unpaid labour of those anxious to get in. Overwork for most and precariousness for many are taking their toll. More than this: the broken promises of the unfaithful university, its failures of vision and care, are breaking hearts.

I learnt as much from a 2015-16 study of academics who had chosen to leave the profession early or were seriously considering doing so, in which I interviewed or surveyed around thirty academics from Australia, the UK and a number of other Western countries. All participants truly believed in the modernist vision of the university as an agent of the common good and they felt that this ideal was being seriously undermined by the commercialisation of university teaching and research, the tidal wave of administration, and managerial practices that did not live up even to corporate best practice. One participant spoke for many when he described the casualised labour practices of contemporary universities, with their zero hours contracts and their structural dismissiveness of expert staff, as being ‘as unethical as any [bad] corporate model on the planet.’

But my study found that, despite the disquiet and the despair, a vocational relation to work remained the norm. To the question ‘Do you consider academia to be a vocation?’, the answer was a resounding yes, with only one or two dissenters. Overwhelmingly, academics testified to experiences and feelings characteristic of vocation: loving the core of the work they do, finding it hard to separate work from life, experiencing the personal and professional dimensions of identity as interwoven. Importantly, this was as true for those on the insecure margins of the profession as for those who had held permanent positions for many years.

It is possible – indeed theologically resonant – to think of vocation as a form of love. Christ the bridegroom is a biblical metaphor exemplified in the idea of nuns as Brides of Christ. In my interviews with academics, love reverberated, though it was not always named as such. It was evident that academics continue to love the scholarly aspects of academic work, and this love manifests itself as care – for students, for the objects of study (be they ancient texts, modern prisons, slugs, stars or amoeba), for details, for accuracy, for their colleagues and their peers.

In recent decades, the idea of work as an object of love has become more prevalent. Melissa Gregg, author of a book on the working lives of white-collar professionals, considers ‘the language of intimacy’ to be ‘central’ to the ideal of work as one’s life project. Such an ideal easily begets the metaphor of work as a lover. Steve Jobs famously invoked it in a 2005 address to Stanford University graduands: ‘You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.’ He urged his young listeners not to settle for second-best:

If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

The love testified to by most of the academics in my study was of this type: not a fling but a long-term commitment. Others, just like me, had discovered or forged a passion early in childhood and were bent on pursuing it for a lifetime. Vertebrate palaeontologist Hannah, for example, said:

It was something I wanted to be since I could talk pretty much, since I was two or three. I asked my parents, ‘What are the scientists who dig up dinosaurs?’ They said, ‘palaeontologists’ and I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to be a palaeontologist.’

The academics I interviewed were torn between how they spent most of their time – the actual work – and what they still saw as the university’s core mission. This contradiction had proved too much for many of them. So the metaphor of a souring or abusive love relationship frequently arose. ‘I am going through an “extended breakup” with academia,’ wrote one, while another looked back from ‘the other side’ of grief:

It was a bit like the end of a relationship. But perhaps like the end of a relationship, you can go on to do other things. There is another life. Life does go on.

Most of us know the pangs of unrequited love and the pains of rejection. We know that they can feel as real as any physical ache – that they can and do manifest as physical sorrows. Loving your work is good for you, but unrequited love is damaging. Perhaps the saddest finding I came across while researching vocation and academic life was in a study of US academics, which found that being able to live out your calling produced the best life, job and health outcomes, but that in terms of physical and psychological health, it was better to have no sense of calling than an unanswered one.

So in this era where most analyses of the university and academic labour thrum with words like ‘neoliberal’, ‘corporate’, ‘precariat’ and ‘para-academic’, we might be forgiven for greeting the term ‘vocation’ with a snort or a curl of the lip. Is it really possible – or more to the point, is it really desirable or fair? – for young academics today to consider their work a vocation, calling or mission? Surely, the marketised, casualised university has turned the idea of vocation into a sick joke, the kind of self-punishing ideal that Lauren Berlant describes as ‘cruel optimism’: ‘when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’.

Or has it? Can the people that academic and blogger Inger Mewburn calls the ‘New Academics’ – those who, like her, have never known a university that was anything but precarious, who are both the product of the contemporary university and its future workforce — can they have a vocation? Can you have a mission without a stable institutional footing? Mewburn – aka The Thesis Whisperer – says you can. Indeed, she says you must.

Inger Mewburn is the creator of a successful blog called The Thesis Whisperer, a self-styled ‘survival’ manual aimed especially at postgraduate students and early career researchers. She has recently compiled a selection of her blog posts as a book called How to be an Academic: The Thesis Whisperer Reveals All.

Mewburn has found her purpose and identity working as what she calls a ‘research educator’ –someone who offers practical assistance to PhD students and also researches the principles and pedagogies of doctoral education. As well as her academic scholarship she curates the Thesis Whisperer blog, whose purpose is to create a community that offers practical tips, support and consolation to higher degree students. Her story of discovering her mission turns on an encounter with the kind of corporate discourse that I would normally greet with guarded cynicism. She describes how, after a varied career, she began a casual job doing research education. After one week, she says, ‘I had an inkling that I had finally found my calling’. Some years later, still without a permanent job, she sought the advice of a member of her extended family, a successful tech industry leader. He got her to write down her own personal ‘mission statement’ and to use it to understand her calling more clearly and to brand and promote herself. It worked.

This tactic of narrating the self in the service of career progression is not a contemporary corporate invention. Indeed, it was the final step in Frank Parsons’s five-step professional guidance plan. As the writer of the Introduction to his posthumously published work put it:

Putting it down on paper seems to be a simple matter, but it is one of supreme importance in this study. No young man can make the self-analysis which Professor Parsons calls for on paper without gaining a distinct benefit, a guide, a rudder, a plan which will reduce very greatly his liability to become a mere piece of driftwood upon the industrial sea.

Mewburn’s experience of working hard at numerous jobs in order to find or perhaps create the one she loves has made her an advocate of what we might call the arranged marriage view of vocation: start cold and let love build. She is a realist: ‘It is a sad fact of life that we can’t all get what we want’. She is ‘a firm believer in making your own luck’. So she suggests that rather than simply following their own existing interests and hoping to find the job that expresses these, early career academics should actively look for niches and opportunities, and to consider which of their skills might give them an ‘edge’ and, ideally, get them close to what they really want – a shadowy space of possibility she calls, following Steven Johnson (and before him, Stuart A. Kauffman), the ‘adjacent possible’. ‘Passion follows skill,’ she claims, drawing on the work of ‘productivity expert’ Cal Newport, who argues that the narrative of self-realisation so prevalent in the contemporary West, whereby we are urged to follow our dreams till we find the job (or lover) who can meet or match them, should be inverted:

The more skilled you get at something, [Newport] contends, the more you will come to enjoy your work.

This is a deliberate refusal of the romantic dream so typical of modern Western storytelling and self-imagining, and so powerfully evoked by Steve Jobs: ‘most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.’

Despite this pragmatic refusal of the romantic version of vocation, the language of love echoes throughout Mewburn’s book. She describes positive experiences – like the support offered by ‘your academic family’ – but the book’s most memorable love metaphor evokes a negative, or at least ambiguous, love experience. She borrows from her colleague Simon French the idea of the ‘Bad Boy University’, the commitment-phobic, seductive boyfriend, whom you find it hard to resist and who will always let you down. Though I find this image a little too sexy for the university, which is often more clunky, unwieldy and confused than this figure of the polished roué might suggest, it points more accurately to the casual cruelty of academic labour practices than does my earlier metaphor of the arranged marriage.

The participants in my study – especially those in the casual workforce — knew the faithless university all too well. Abby, a postdoctoral researcher, saw the university as a seductive giver of trinkets: ‘There’s always something bright and shiny that comes along.’ William had hoped for better but after many years of being treated badly knew it would never come:

I’m beginning to feel more and more that … I am slowly breaking up with academia because it is not a relationship that is able to keep or value promises of fidelity and responsibility.

Mewburn is no cock-eyed optimist; she stares the Bad Boy University in the eyes and takes what he can give. More pragmatic than romantic, she refuses to be one of his cast-offs. Knowing that you can’t rely on the university to care for you, she has chosen to care for herself, considering herself ‘a custodian of a career, not an employee’. One can, she argues, have a mission even in the absence of the stabilising institutions that once enabled and required vocations.

To those who read contemporary critical analyses of the university, the word ‘neoliberalism’ springs easily to mind. But we need to slow the clichés down. Yes, this is neoliberalism, but people need to live in these neoliberal worlds. More than this: they want, if they can, to thrive. We all do.

From the stability of my (more or less) secure position in a well-resourced university, I have no interest in labelling, let alone evaluating, the tactics used or advocated by people in the thick of things. Like all my colleagues in continuing positions, I daily watch young academics forging their paths choice by choice, contract by contract, inventing themselves anew in each new role, with all the imaginative, financial, emotional and even sartorial investments this involves. Like all senior academics, I am woven into webs of friendship, reliance and respect in which I am sometimes called on to offer support or advice, but I am as likely to be structurally cast in the role of exploiter as that of adviser, mentor or guide. So I watch, from the privileged inside, with a mixture of sorrow and admiration, and with a very restrained sense of my own capacity or right to offer career advice.

The Thesis Whisperer reminds us that the fragmentation of work produces fragmented or compartmentalised experiences, identities and tactics. Mewburn, for example, researches doctoral education, encourages higher degree students, and writes a regular column in the National Tertiary Education Union’s Advocate magazine. Her book opens with the claim that she writes best when angry, yet most of its tone is upbeat. Just as the world of casual labour requires and produces a fragmentation and compartmentalisation of identity and self-presentation, one can adopt different tones and stances across different contexts and genres of writing and action. This is not new; recall that Parsons himself was an advocate of structural reform who wrote the seminal text on how to guide young people to make wise choices.

It is hard to make choices when the future of work is unimaginable, whether that be in the university sector or elsewhere. We are all implicated. Many creditable analyses suggest that automation and AI will disproportionately affect women and minority groups, given their over-representation in repetitive, clerical, manual or ‘unskilled’ labour and their underrepresentation in the new, technologically dominant, jobs that will be created in the decades to come, like robotic engineering. But some analysts claim that the rate of job disappearance is no higher than it was in the waves of automation in the decades from the 1950s on. What is new, they say, is that this time it is white-collar jobs that are going.

It is not at all clear which professions will survive the cull:

Human workers of all stripes pound the table claiming desperately that they’re irreplaceable. Bus drivers. Bartenders. Financial advisors. Speechwriters. Firefighters. Umpires. Even doctors and surgeons. Meanwhile, corporations and investors are spending billions – at least $8.5 billion [in 2015] on AI, and $1.8 billion on robots – toward making all those jobs replaceable.

This applies even to academics, who are, moreover, helping the process along. We put our content online, handing over the car keys to the managers and administrators while the software engineers and coders get closer and closer to the dream of essays that can be marked by computer. Our offices – once book-lined retreats from the outside world as well as hubs of animated conversation in a bygone era when books were objects and informal scholarly conversation and gossip animated academic life – are disappearing with each new renovation, replaced by hot-desks. Pot plants and family photos may or may not be allowed but books are certainly not part of the furniture.

In the face of the scale, complexity and unpredictability of these changes, it is concerning, if not entirely surprising, that Australia has just admitted that it doesn’t have a plan. The top recommendation of the September 2018 Select Committee Report on the Future of Work and Workers is, in fact, that we get one. Until then, as a nation, we are sailing rudderless.

‘Hope is not a Strategy’ warns the report’s title. But in the face of the current Non-Plan maybe we will all need to learn to be custodians of our own Brand Me, as Mewburn proposes. But some of us will be better networked, better counselled, better held in place – materially and ontologically – than others.

In 1909 Frank Parsons believed in the importance of a guide or rudder, someone who might help the young person to make a plan that will ‘reduce very greatly [their] liability to become a mere piece of driftwood upon the industrial sea’. As an academic who came through in easier times, I do not feel able to point confidently towards the future. I find it impossible to imagine what a robotic, AI-dominated work future might bring — what promises it might or might not make or fulfil.

I am fond of saying that ‘We all need a team’. Today’s youth are skilled and practised at building and maintaining their own support teams. So maybe they have less need of the counsellor, director, rudder or guide favoured in earlier times and older metaphors, or can find it in networked forms, like the Thesis Whisperer’s survival blog.

The industrial seas were rough in 1909. Today they are again. Since we are not so good at futures, perhaps there is consolation to be found, as always, in history.

References

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