This is not a blog about education at all. This is a blog about how I’ve been perceiving the world, and I wonder if you’ve felt it, too.
The world has shifted.
I can’t put my finger on what is different about us. About people – about society, as a whole. But I think there is a new gnawing in the underbelly, a permanent deep frustration, and an urgency in all of us that wasn’t always there.
This writing is an exploration of that feeling.
A couple of weeks ago I walked into Walgreens. I was greeted with the usual, “Hi! Welcome to Walgreens!” And so I replied – “Hello, thank you!” I went on about my shopping toward the front of the store. As I browsed, I heard the same “Welcome to Walgreens” greeting several times. Not one person replied to the greeting. Once I finished shopping and went to the checkout, I asked the cashier how many people responded to her greeting. She said thoughtfully, “Maybe one out of every ten.”
In drive-thru lanes, through the static I can hear the shock when I always ask in return ‘ “How are you?” The last woman I asked was so happy she said, “Wow! I’m doing good. Thank you SO MUCH for asking!”
Just the other day I was picking up my six month old son, Atticus, from the YMCA. I exited the building juggling his car seat on one arm, the diaper bag over one shoulder, and my (admittedly huge) purse on the other shoulder. My baby is a big boy, y’all. He is 18 pounds. Add the carseat and the luggage, and I was struggling to carry it all. I look to my right as I step off the curb, and I see a car coming, but it’s a distance away and has to slow down for two speed bumps before it reaches me. So I head for my vehicle, directly in front of me and across the wide swath of driveway. Would you believe – – instead of seeing me in my heavy laden misery and slowing down to let me pass – – the driver of said car pulls right up in front of me, blocking my path? She apparently thought it was necessary to cut me off in order to sit there and wait for another driver to leave their parking spot. She pretended not to hear my choice words as I walked around the back bumper of her Subaru station wagon.
Bear with me, there is a point. My dear friend schooled me on something called the “precariat”. The precariat is a relatively newer class of people who lack financial security, thus they are “precariously” positioned. I got a B.A. in Sociology in the early 2000’s, read the hell outta some Marx, and had never heard of the precariat. Interesting. So, the precariat are the folks working “part-time” with no benefits for 39 hours a week, maybe they run their car into the ground delivering food for GrubHub, maybe they are breaking their back at the Amazon warehouse, maybe driving for Uber on the weekends. Maybe they do some combination of all three and still find time to dream about owning their own business and being their own boss someday, or writing a book, or getting a record deal. They take care of their kids, cars and homes the best they can in the little spare time they have. They also look for ways to improve their financial circumstances, maybe an online college degree in medical coding will do the trick. They can pay their rent now but worry about what might happen if they get sick. They can’t get sick, because there’s no fucking health insurance. They can’t get sick because if they take off work, then their pay is one day short and that’s too much to recover from. Gotta keep it moving, keep on striving, keep on keepin’ on.
The precariat is a thing because neoliberalism is a thing. Neoliberalism is a hard concept to define, mostly because it’s like the uber elite and wealthy masterminds who run the world via their corporations got into a lab together and created the most evil and deranged Octopus ever, except the octopus has more than 8 tentacles, and the Octopus is so huge that it wraps around the whole world. The deadly tentacles have wound their way into everything – the economy; governments, politics, and elections; jobs and the culture of working; higher education; K-12 schooling; and our concepts of leisure and family time; even the ways in which we procure our needs. There are remnants of “the way things were” still left, but the Octopus tentacles have infiltrated everything and what we are seeing happening are the tentacles slowly continuing their advance, taking hold of more and more.
What effects does this have on us, as humans? Neoliberalism in the workplace has advanced the precariat by busting unions; therefore diminishing job security. Think: the increasing numbers of adjunct instructors at colleges, TFA teachers in K-12 classrooms instead of experienced teachers, the freelancers, the temp workers. AKA the “gig economy”. The precariat is the largest growing economic group. This financial insecurity, the need to be constantly in motion, working, striving, because one job just isn’t ENOUGH, will eventually have deleterious effects on us. We need time to be human, to develop ourselves, to hear silence, to attend to our families, children, and friendships.
Instead, we are so in a rush we do not have time to respond to the Walgreens clerk. When the drive-thru worker asks how we are doing, we plow right on through to our order because there’s shit to do and people waiting on us. And fuck the lady carrying the baby, she is insignificant, we must rush to claim our parking spot so we can hurry up and get inside the YMCA and work out. Because, time. If the work out is not done by 4pm then I won’t have time to cook dinner and then the kids are late to bed, and then I can’t work on my online class, and then, and then, and then the domino effect is almost as irrevocable as missing a day’s worth of pay.
Our eye is so trained on the prize. The neoliberal/precariat economic realities of the day have conditioned us to relish only in the outcome of things, never finding joy in the process. Vincent Van Gogh presented one of his stellar pieces to the world and received high praise for his art. One critic was especially fond of the piece and gave many compliments. Van Gogh responded to the effect that it was not about the finished piece of art that he had just completed. For him, it was the process. His joy was in each stroke of the brush. We, as people, need to mind the process, and find the joy in it.
Next blog: More about the Octopus.