Managing my own precarity - Foundational on the Future of Work

Pieces tagged as #foundational tackle my personal experience with the work I engage in. They are the result of exercises I put myself through, and have chosen to make public, regarding where I am situated at that moment in time vis-à-vis a topic. They ask of me that I trace the origins, through time, place and human relations, of my relationship to that topic. In doing so, the ways in which I can affect it over the course of my time here with integrity, whom I can connect with and how, and what tools I have yet to gather become clearer. I look forward to your comments. - Stephanie Guico

In November 2013, between two chapters of Lean In, the hunch that I could sever ties to formal employment lodged itself somewhere between my lungs. Romantic ties had brought me to spend more time than usual in the company of actors and theatre workers, a benign factoid were it not for the question I was confronted with on an almost-daily basis : Are you a performer, too?

Every additional inquirer brought me to formulate a more honest answer, concluding with the following world-shifting realization. I wake up every morning, put on a character-appropriate costume, breathe in, put on a face whilst reciting affirmations, turn it on, leave the house. Sustain that persona from ~7:30 am - ~6:00 pm. During that time, I recite lines, code switch, perform another, defer self to the weekend. Yup, I guess I’m a performer.

In October 2013, despite performing above standard, I learned that my contract would not be renewed. I was 30 and had held 11 positions for 5 different employers, only one of which was a permanent, unionized job with full benefits. The rest had been contracts with varying levels of social protections, all precarious and with a determined end date.

A month later, that hunch lodged itself between my lungs. I resolved to manage my own precarity, to lead a life where all my labor was elevated to the status of work, and to ensure that what was valued through a pay existed in balance with other aspects of my life. When I stepped away from formal employment, I left behind an existence centered around performing job descriptions in exchange for a salary. I stepped into a new outlook that focussed on collaborating with people who valued what I had to offer, including financially.

It was obvious from experience - both mine and my peers’ : the promise of stable, lifelong employment was neither one we could rely on nor one which suited us well at all. Moreover, I wanted to shape a life more closely aligned with the values I wished to see mainstreamed in the world around me. A life that was more cyclical than linear, a life that left space for iteration and experimentation, and a life that focused on wholeness, balancing many interests rather than uplifting the marketable one(s) at the detriment of others. I resolved to replace performance with healthy relationship building, growth towards excellence, and a focus on meaning. If the future is in our hands, let’s make it beautiful
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By December, I set out to design what this radical self-management + full life agency would look like, based on a few sticking points I had observed relating to the “traditional” world of work. I knew that I was not inventing a model of personal liberation that had not been tested. Working in international development, I had known of an abundance of women who paired local community work with international collaboration, modulating their time to leave space for their full self to thrive and all their myriad responsibilities to be fulfilled. There were templates for this that spanned lifetimes.

If I’m being honest, I drew a vertical line on a piece of paper, wrote a series of bullet points describing things I had found farcical or felt irreconcilable tensions with on the left, and their productive solution on the right. The resulting right side ideas looked like this (I will spare you the contents of the left column, but invite you to free-associate your corresponding TGIF thoughts):

  • retire every 4 years

  • balance and honour my numerous interconnected interests - art, farming, management, facilitation

  • make enough to live now and secure a future

  • find the intersection between interest/passion and expertise to locate what I had to offer

  • lean on my network, but not work for friends

  • go at your own speed (mine = hyperactive)

  • curiosity everyday, practice everyday

Each of these items deserve their own exploration, and I will likely write about them in the near future. For now, though, I want to focus on how this personal turning point set me on course for a budding role in shaping the future of work.

At the time, I gave myself a year to see if this new life fit, and whether this test brought challenges I wanted to spend time and energy solving. A year later, in December 2014, at a small desk in a hut on a farm on Big Island, Hawaii, I wrote the following learnings:

  • Bill so you can set aside for : retirement, emergencies, taxes (x 4 or 6), professional development, insurance + health + all the social protections, expenses, marketing, admin time, and what you haven’t thought of yet

  • You are the whole office : marketing, sales, legal, accounting, collections, the union rep, all of it

  • Managers are accustomed to employees, and don’t yet understand how to relate as a client

  • Life balance is possible

  • Comfortable living is possible

  • Creativity and living from doing what resonates is possible

  • Don’t trust the big talkers; the best clients are self-aware

  • Wow, you did this

The next day, I drafted a very broad, 5-year strategic plan. I was going to stick to this experiment, but not without eventually making this situation better for my peers. Our ranks were, by all accounts, swelling in Canada and I had learned lessons that could easily be resolved if we put our collective minds to it.

I drafted the following principles for myself:

  • work exclusively with groups who make work better & help people thrive through collaboration, either by amplifying tested models or pioneering new ones - after all, I come from worker coops.

  • always for the workers, so we access the protections we deserve regardless of formal status - I had organized intermittently with workers rights groups in Montreal, and wanted to anchor myself in that.

  • be mobile and global and virtual - as the child of an immigrant, that seems to come naturally.

  • make peace with automation (maybe lean on it?), and see how automation can empower marginalized people rather than the opposite - it was an emerging topic at the time. Though I wasn’t sure how it could affect me, it felt like something I had to keep an eye on.

Since then, I have been perfecting my personal practice(s), and kept experimenting within and alongside groups - a matter documented in the Recent Projects section. The next natural step is systemic change.

I recently read Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy. It clarified for me a concept that has been floating around facilitator circles for a few years : the fractal, which is the idea that how we are at the small scale reverberates into how we are at the large scale. In a completely different realm, the ILO’s Inception Report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work acknowledges that the solutions to coming challenges will be multiple and grounded in local realities.

I believe that the multiple responses to shaping the future of work begin by looking at how people are currently embodying the future of work and how they have coped in the past, spiralling positive lessons outward, from individuals to groups to the system. From this point of view, I see an opportunity to cast light onto the current state of systems. If we take stock of the convergences and divergences in our social structures as our former pillars move into and away from each other, we will be better equipped to see the areas in need of solutions.

In this context, what I commit to is the following. On a personal, collective and eventually systemic level, I work, and will continue to work, to build a future of work that does away with obsolete models and finds new ways of ensuring that social protections, previously the concern of governments and employers, can be managed in a new collective structure.