Adrift: on a path through life


WITHOUT DIRECTION there is only drift. Edward de Bono said that or said something very much like it. The statement gets at the desirability of having direction, of setting goals to move towards. In heading for a goal you cannot be adrift. You are direction-bound. Your path, your trajectory through time and space is set. No deviation, lest you fall into the unachievers basket. Seems there might be a little anxiety associated with achieving goals.

Goal setting is ingrained in society. Business people talk of heading towards corporate goals. Individuals are exhorted to set life goals. It is as if the world were somehow stable enough and conditions unchanging enough to make planning for long-term goals realistic. That’s something less and less likely in the social conditions now emerging.

How come? Well, it’s like this. Back a half century or less ago, those who were adults then might recall that our societies in the West were a lot less dynamic than they are today. The impression was, and this was certainly my impression, that looking forward there was a firm expectation that things would continue to unfold as they had done since, say, the mid-1950s. Life appeared as a connected series of stages. There was childhood then adolescence, the teen years then adulthood. The expectation was that life would take the same track as it had for our parents — youth, then marriage and on into family and working life to eventually retire and do… what?

But then came the 1970s and the computer revolution, and that was the start of the disruption. We didn’t know that then, knowing it would have to await another 30 years. Now that revolution with its automation and roboticisation and its AI has firmly disrupted that rosy anticipation of a fixed, or semi-fixed future.

The expectation of careers, or not

Part of the imagined future back in that earlier time was the expectation of careers, of a lifetime spent in one type or work and long periods spent with one employer. That happened. It was the pattern that generation inherited from their parents. It was the social expectation. It is gone.

With the disappearance of the long-term job, the single career life, we have moved from being adrift in working life as many non-professional experienced through the early years of the Twentieth Century, through job certainty, career and long-term employment of the mid-to-later Twentieth Century, to once again being adrift in the world of working life, less so yet for professionals but more so for the 30-40 percent of Australians (with similar figures in the US and UK) trying to make a living in the precariat.

The precariat? That’s the emerging social sector occupied by those in preacrious working conditions — the casual and parttime workers (many trying to balance more than one parttime job), those doing project work and others on fixed-term work assignments. Some thrive in and prefer this environment but a great many do not. They look back to the days before the present drift to the times of working life stability.

So, in the span of a century we have gone from being adrift in working life and moving from job to job, through stability in working life and on to being adrift again. The question is — where to now that the precariat is growing in size and the economically precarious working life is the new norm?


A couple I know have the good fortune to still be living that stable life reminiscent of Australia of the mid-century on to century’s end. There is a certainty about them. Not a smugness, more an assumption that things will continue as now. An expectation. They are school teachers. They have continuity and certainty. For awhile, anyway.

Another friend has passed through a succession of jobs since I met her at the start of the seventies — worker in a French perfume factory in Sydney, railway catering staffer, student, English teacher in China, journalist… there’s more, but that list will get the idea across. Now, she’s on a part-pension and spinning that out with modest earnings in her own one-woman catering business.

I mention her because her working life suggests something that those in their late youth or who were young adults when the seventies came around might relate to. This is a psychological thing and it marks those who experienced it as different from today’s youth and young adults.

It is this. For many growing up at that earlier time the social pressure that drives young people today to focus on their career and on getting qualified for it was lacking. Not for all, for the wealthier segment of the middle class placed great emphasis on its children obtaining a university degree. But it was the case for many.

For these others, life was not this planned-out timeline. It was open-ended. They were more creatures of the moment, creatures of circumstance, than goal directed. Jobs then were plentiful and it was not hard to walk into one when you needed an income even though the work might be dull. Inspiration, then, came more from life outside the workplace. They were adrift in life in the sense that they sought no career.

My female friend I mention was one of that numerous milieu. Her whole life has been spent in it. Unlike other friends from the time, she did not go to university on leaving school but into working life. Sure, she obtained a degree as an adult student decades later, when she know what excited her in life. It was not a degree that opened job opportunities, though, more one that filled her needs for one of the things she likes doing in life, which is writing fiction. It is difficult to turn that into a career and doing that would miss the point, for she is happy in the life where drift washed her up on the shore of a small regional city in a distant state.

In my first paragraph I said that lack of life goals, being adrift in life and happy to move from job to job, place to place, raised the risk of falling unto the unachievers basket. I think that term needs a rethink now that more people live in the new social class, the precariat. They are less unachievers than being surplus to the needs of the economy for more skilled or unskilled workers in more and more sectors of working life. Many have university degrees and so have all the qualifications that would set them on that past-path of employment certitude.

My friend, though. Perhaps if they knew her they would come to realise that being adrift is not such a bad thing after all.



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