I have been sitting at my laptop for the last few hours, staring at a script, calculating syllables and syntax and subtexts. I savour every word changed, every minute I spend thinking about the craft of saying things. Sometimes it seems crazy that I get to do the same thing my heroes have done for years. This work somehow brings me closer to them.
I keep thinking about how it is a pleasure and a privilege to work on something you love. I feel very lucky indeed, but I do hesitate over the word “privileged”: it feels like a dangerous allowance, a concession to those who look upon creative careers as a luxury. In an Australia where our Prime Minister says that if you do not currently have a job, you have “no right to hold out for the job of [your] dreams“, yeah, I feel nervous about doing work I love. Enjoying my work somehow makes it feel illegitimate, unless I were making heaps of money from it (… I’m not).
Privilege is a peculiar benefit which is given to some people and not others. I feel privileged to be working as a writer and performer because I know that some people are not able to do this. Sometimes I am one of those people. When I’ve been too poor and sick to buy groceries or to get down the stairs, I’ve asked myself: “Who do you think you are, to want to make art? What gives you the right? You’re struggling to make ends meet and you want to write poetry?”
ABOVE: Pro-tip – having the State Library as your office is free and gets you dream views.
The Prime Minister is purportedly only targeting unemployed and underemployed Australians with his exhortations to stop “holding out” for a dream job, but we’re all only one piece of bad news away from unemployment, right? One dismissal letter, one crisis, one Budget axing our funding, and it could be us queuing at Centrelink. Then we, too, would have to stop “holding out” – holding out, as if we’re in a negotiation. Is Abbott saying that we don’t have the right to negotiate the terms of our own employment?
The problem with the phrase “dream job” is that its meaning is negligible. I would guess that Abbott means it as “one’s most ideal job”. But most of us know that we have to do many other jobs on the way up to the ideal. In the creative industries, it’s generally accepted that you’ll have to put in hours of study, training, practice, unpaid internships, portfolio-building, work experience – none of which pays the bills. If we, as a culture, only value the hours for which you’re being paid, then we dismiss all those hours you have to put in to become skilled. And research shows that these hours are definitely not wasted, as an article published at The Conversation yesterday demonstrated – although people in the creative industries struggle initially to find employment post-graduation, they go on to earn very comfortably later in their careers and report high levels of career satisfaction.
When the Government talks about unemployment, it sounds like it is imagining the worst possible version of un(der)employed people – spoiled, entitled brats. People who will avoid lifting a finger wherever possible (perhaps preferring to be “leaners”). The Government’s paradigm seems to be, “It’s easy to tell if what you’re doing is worthwhile: if it is, someone will be paying you a living wage for it.” By this mode of thinking, I was contributing more to society when I was handing out Haribo samples in the Woolies confectionery aisle than when I was writing a show about gender and identity in Australia. Lollies are an important part of a balanced diet (the very top of the pyramid, indeed), but the people ignoring me and going over to the Lindt lady instead didn’t seem to appreciate my civic duty.
What is my ideal job, anyway? Am I doing it now? I don’t know. In high school I told people my dream job was to “somehow monetize blinking”, whether in a salaried position or paid blink-by-blink. Now that I’m 28 and (only slightly) less of a smart-aleck, I would say that my ideal job is one that gives me opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose. (This Dan Pink talk really had an impact on me.) I would like enough income to be comfortable and to do the things I enjoy. I would like to feel that I am contributing to society in a way for which I am particularly equipped. That is, I would like to make full use of my strengths. You could put me in a field picking strawberries, and I guess I’d be superficially contributing to our nation’s agricultural industry, but I’d be freaking horrible at it. First of all, I’m over six feet tall, and I understand that the strawberries are quite close to the ground. But most of all, I’m physically the equivalent of a sentient noodle. There are other things that I’m much better at, and I think I could be put to better use than being shoved into any job going.
A lot of our Government’s rhetoric is underpinned by the idea that work is inherently moral. I’m not necessarily refuting that – it is an idea I’m still unpacking – and the American blood in me fervently believes in the value of hard work. But what type of work – that is what interests me. The harsh unemployment policies and their supporters are saying that any work is better than “no work”. (By the way, anyone who has been unemployed (and unpaid) for an extended period knows that it is not “no work”.) But what do we want for Australia? Do we just want a country where every single citizen (abled or otherwise) is toiling somewhere, anywhere? Personally, I want more for my country. I dream bigger for us. And I think the Government does, too, since they’ve proposed to invest billions of dollars in a Medical Research Future Fund, to make sure that Australia will “advance world leading medical research projects“. They want Australia to achieve autonomy and mastery in the medical research field, and all this in the midst of a “budget emergency“. Clearly it’s not enough for Australia’s medical bodies just to work – they must be globally competitive.
If more people in Australia were able to work towards their “dream job” (read: dream lifestyle), I have little doubt that we would have the kind of culture that other countries hold up as an example. We could be one of those smug Scandinavian countries! Do we want work satisfaction to be a peculiar benefit only afforded to a few? Or could we all dream of a job where we are employed to the best of our abilities?
I will continue to feel lucky doing work that I love. But I wonder whether it should be considered a privilege rather than a right.
BELOW: Following some dreams.