On paper I was practically a perfect neoliberal employee.Grew up around the world (I can live anywhere, I’m flexible and adaptable! I’m part of the international community!) speak fluent English and passable Mandarin, highly educated with a Masters degree from Imperial College London in a numerical subject (I can problem solve rationally! I have a technical background yet I can also communicate effectively!), respectful of authority, apolitical, un-religious, creative but not too creative (don’t worry I won’t challenge any underlying assumptions!), the only thing lacking being my dislike of competitive sports (sorry I don’t like playing by rules and I don’t feel the need to beat other people to enjoy myself. I will voluntarily spend a large chunk of my free time in a gym to combat the ill effects of sitting in an office though, don’t worry!). In a 6 year period I worked for a number of large corporations in London and in Hong Kong – KPMG, AECOM, ARUP, AECOM again, ACCENTURE, and then for a much smaller firm Climate Consulting and finally CBRE.
I was never fired from any of these jobs, but I got bored and couldn’t see the point in the work I was doing and wanted to change something, anything to avoid what was happening being my actual life, and so I would quit and start somewhere new. Then whilst at CBRE my body shut down. Not completely, but my arms were in constant pain and I could only hold a cup of coffee if I used two hands the muscles were so weak, sitting at a desk for longer than 10 minutes caused excruciating neck pain, at times I was hobbling my ankles and knee hurt so much, and my periods stopped. Enough at the age of 29 to require me to retire from the working world.
For the first year or so after my ‘retirement’ all I had time to think about was my health. It is amazing how time consuming it is to be ill. The constant appointments, tests, results, conflicting opinions and day to day management of pain took up much of my attention. Recovery was slow (and still not complete), and mainly just involved rest. I met my husband to be and got pregnant and kept concentrating on my health for the baby. The first year of her life, moving house and getting married is a blur. Its only since she’s started napping well and sleeping through the nights, and my arms no longer hurt on a daily basis and I don’t have to worry about money because my husband is looking after us, that I’ve had time to actually think.
So of course what do I think about first? Myself, naturally. How I fit in in society. How well I am doing in the supposed competition that is life.
Well, my lack of employment means that I am a failure. I have squandered my education and all the work opportunities given to me by not having enough ‘grittiness’ to climb the corporate ladder. My health problems are a sign of weakness, and if I just tried harder and had the courage to believe in myself I could overcome them. For being a stay at home mother I am admitting my lack of ambition and my brain must slowly be turning to mush without the outlet of work. Given my daughter is over the age of 3 months she should really be looked after by a low-paid female worker who has fewer educational qualifications than I have. I’m denying somebody else a job, make no money, sponge off my husband and my family for what little I do spend and am a drag on the economy and therefore society.
Despite having a beautiful baby daughter, loving husband, family and friends, if I think like this I get depressed. To be unemployed and have a chronic health problem, is to be useless and ‘losing’ at life, and given my abject dislike of shopping I can’t even point at any consumer items I own to try to make it look like I’m ‘winning’.
Getting out of this fug of depression only happened once I started reading more non-fiction (see my Reading List blogpost), and instead of seeing myself as a problem, started seeing society as the one with the problem. Which may seem like something someone with mental health problems might think, but when Donald Trump is president, you have to admit there is something going badly wrong somewhere and it’s unlikely to be just down to an issue with my brain chemistry that can be solved by me popping an antidepressant pill and attempting mindfullness while doing the dishes.
To avoid any further fugs of depression or to apathetically slide into thinking that the end of society as we know it is:
a)inevitable and there is nothing I can do so I might as well consume as much as I can, fly as much and as far as possible and ‘enjoy’ myself to the max before it all burns to the ground and only the super rich in their maximum security fortresses (which they have conveniently designed to withstand climate change despite not believing it exists) survive
b) not going to happen because we will find some amazing technological fix that means we can continue as is, so I’d best keep up the consumer frenzy so that the technological overlords know what lifestyle it is that I want them to design for
c)not going to happen because global warming is a giant hoax (as is pollution and antibiotic resistance) and one of the incredibly sensible people Donald Trump has appointed to his team will stop him from triggering a nuclear war via Twitter, so I need to just chill out.
d)not going to happen because we will continue to keep more than half the world firmly in abject poverty and environmental devastation and I need to be able to squash any feelings of moral outrage and just make damn sure I and my family have enough money and the right passport and qualifications to stay on the right side of whatever walls/fences/flood defences/immigration points systems are designed to keep the other half out.(For this world view it helps to dampen your moral outrage if you believe you live in a meritocracy and/or in trickle down economics and the power of the free market, or if you are racist/believe it is human nature to be awful and so if it wasn’t you being awful it would be somebody else being awful ergo you must be awful even though you personally are not actually awful really i.e become a Conservative).
I’ve disengaged from the consumer aspects of our current society by deleting instagram from my phone so I don’t covet other peoples wardrobe/food/holidays (#blessed!) and drastically reducing my facebook usage. I never click on online advertisements and to avoid other types of advertisements I rarely watch TV, read magazines or go into the centre of town, and I try to minimise my shopping to essentials as much as possible (as outlined in my consumer austerity budget). I avoid airports (essentially giant shopping malls with undignified security procedures) and mainly only travel to see friends and family.
I’ve also stopped spending my time in the socially conventional ways. I no longer go to the gym (thus avoiding music videos and the conformity of lycra) or do any structured exercise (I don’t like being told what to do and I find that looking after a house and a toddler provides more than enough opportunities for movement). I’ve updated my LinkedIn profile to tell the truth about the kind of work I would actually like to do as a protest against all the bullshit corporate jobs out there, and remarkably I’ve had no more recruitment consultants bothering me. For a little while I thought about doing an MBA or another masters degree, but I wasn’t sure my arms would cope with the computer use that would involve and I realised I’m finished with the current education system. The rote learning, tick box, store everything in your short term memory in order to pass the exam, lose all enthusiasm for the subject by the end of the course but have yet another piece of paper to prove your credentials to some higher power no longer holds any appeal.
While I’m actively disengaging from the consumer aspects of our current society and the conventional ways of spending ones time, I’m not disengaging from the world. I find I smile at people far more now i’m looking outwards. Rather than wanting to ‘switch off’ my brain and relax when I have spare time I want to use my spare time to TIME TO THINK ABOUT EVERYTHING. It’s not much spare time, admittedly, about an hour a day while my daughter is napping and an hour or so of daydreaming while I’m pushing the pram or watching her in the playground, but it’s a lot more than most people who are so busy/stressed/anxious they only have time to think about very focused things and actively want to block out the world with a screen when they find themselves with a spare five minutes.*
Binge watching a box set holds less appeal and I’m trying to read as much as I can instead. I use Twitter to get recommendations for books and articles that don’t so much keep me up to date with news events as help to explain the underlying roots of these events. I’m interested in finding out about our current dominant ideology neoliberalism, feminist thought,climate change, economics, sociology, education and philosophy, and to this end I try to follow people with differing ideas to mine as well as those whose ideas and books I admire.
I’ve become more politically aware and active, having voted for the first time in my life this year in the EU referendum and then again in the Labour leadership election. I’ve written to several political leaders with my ideas (with ha, no response as of yet), and joined a local campaign here against the Brussels flight paths.
This year I want to get more involved in the local community and volunteer my ideas and time to institutions that work for change like the New Economics Foundation, Tax Justice network, 38 degrees, Jeremy Corbyns version of the Labour party and any more I can find. I also want to draw a cartoon series depicting a GOOD post-neoliberalism future (an option e) for the end of our current society), not a dystopian one because we seem to be painfully lacking in any kind of idea of what we DO if we are not on the treadmill of work and consumerism**, and having been flung off that treadmill but still having my basic needs met, I have some ideas. Roll on 2017.
*Read ‘The Stupidity Paradox’ by Andre Spicer for how this lack of actual thinking affects the workplace.