Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Making a living, shaping our lives & muddling through

A birthday is a good moment to step back, to reflect on the stage in life that you've reached and how the world looks from here. It's also a time when people are supposed to indulge you, so I'm taking it as an excuse to voice some more personal thoughts than usual. If I'm projecting the ordinary life-dramas of the people I know onto a grander screen than they deserve, then please be kind.

Looking around at my peers, I've had a sense in the last year or two of our crossing a threshold. It's partly a work thing. I have the impression of us leaving behind an "early career" phase, characterised by acquiring skills and experience, during which we were to a large extent interchangeable: we got work by being there and being able to do it, but if we hadn't been there, someone else could have done it equally satisfactorily. Increasingly, this is giving way to work which is commissioned on the basis of our particular abilities and insights.

Clearly, this is a privileged experience – and I recognise how lucky I am to get paid to pursue my passions – but perhaps it also has echoes of older models of a working life. The transition I'm describing feels rather like the completion of an apprenticeship, passing into a stage of life in which one's competence is acknowledged and experience valued.

One effect of becoming less interchangeable is that you have, potentially, greater autonomy. At the simplest level, you may no longer need to locate where the work is in order to get work. I'm certain this is one reason why many of my London friends have begun talking seriously about moving elsewhere, creating our own bases somewhere further from the noise and expense of the capital. In recent months, I've found myself in the middle of several sets of ongoing conversations along these lines.

The changing situation of our working lives is one reason for the new seriousness of these conversations, but life is not all about work. Briony Greenhill – who's been keeping an excellent blog called The Blended Lifestyle – summed up what a few of us had been talking about with the simple question: "How do you want to live?" This opens out into where, with whom, on what terms, at what cost, with what commitments.

For the first time in my life, many of those I experience as my peers are having children. There are people I grew up with in Darlington who have teenagers by now – but, until recently, when a friend announced that they were becoming a parent, it felt like a huge divergence in our lives. Today, I see friends and collaborators whose lives are on similar paths to mine starting families. That's new. So the question of how we want to live also includes the question of what kind of parents we want to be and how (and where and with whom) we want to bring up children.

Before anyone gets excited, I should say that this is still very much an academic question for me! But it seems important enough to start thinking and talking about it now, rather than leave it till it takes on a practical urgency...

How does the possibility of parenthood fit into our lives and the world in which we find ourselves? Again, anything I can say about this comes from the peculiar position of myself and my friends, living the postmodern dream, with our highly-networked, creatively-precarious lives, skittering over the surface of a global city and Twittering our schemes for changing the world, never too far from becoming cartoons of ourselves.

One question I have is whether (and how) these ways of living can survive and adapt to the responsibility of parenthood. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman talks about “liquid modernity”, a style of living in which all relationships and agreements can be dissolved at a moment's notice, a condition best-suited to the young, single and successful. If that is really the essence of the playful, post-structural lives we've been enjoying, is parenthood the point where our sense of living in new ways hits the buffers? Or is there more room for weaving commitment and playfulness, the sense of reality as something to be made and remade with the sense of the lasting effects of our actions and the need to live for things more constant than what feels good right now?

One thing that strikes me is how badly our postmodern myths prepare us for seeing ourselves as mothers and fathers. It's not that we're short of mythic material, fantastic characters from which to borrow a sense of our archetypal selves. But our heroes and heroines seem to inhabit a perpetual adolescence. The Greek, Hindu and Norse myths are family sagas. Even Christianity, which tends to be more screwed up about these things, has an image of a mother and child close to its core. Now, I've been converted in recent times to the way of the graphic novel – the best comic book series have the depth and magic and good old-fashioned drama of a real mythological cycle – but I can't help noticing that none of the characters in 'The Invisibles' has children.

It isn't just our heroes whose adolescence stretches out towards middle age. Something similar has been said of us as a generation. What is often missing in such criticism is the role of our economic experience in shaping our lives. On paper, we may be a more affluent generation than our parents, but break down the numbers and you get a messier story. Even after the impact of the recession, house prices are still twice as high in relation to average income as they were when I was born. More of my generation went to university, but we graduated with loans our parents' never had. (Anya Kamenetz's 'Generation Debt' tells this story in a US context.) On the other hand, the older we got, the cheaper and more spectacular the gadgets became. Swings and roundabouts, I guess... but you can't live in a PlayStation. So another strand underlying the conversations about how we want to live is the difficulty we have imagining how we could provide the kind of security we experienced in the families we grew up in.

Every generation has its difficulties to contend with – and there are plenty of ways in which ours is fortunate. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm interested in looking honestly at the ways in which life is different for us to how it was for our parents, accepting the irreversibility of much of this, and seeing it as an opportunity to find new ways of living together, making things work, muddling through. (I mean, the reason I'm basically hopeful, even with all the social, economic and ecological tsunamis I suspect we'll live through, is that humans are really remarkably good at muddling through.)

Yes, I want to sing the praises of muddling through – because, if we are going to find new ways of living, they can't be utopian blueprints. 'Changing the world' has become an anachronism: the world is changing so fast, the best we can do is to become a little more observant, more agile, better able to move with it or to spot the places where a subtle shift may set something on a less-worse course than it was on. And you know, that's OK – because what makes life worth living was never striving for, let alone reaching, utopias. It always has come down to the simple things: being with people you care about, helping each other through, telling stories, piecing together bits of meaning, noticing something for the first time and sharing it with someone, eating together, doing work which meets your own needs and those of the people around you, getting a good night's sleep. Really, as long as we're here, that stuff is unlikely to be much more lost than it has been in the excesses of recent history.

Hmmm... Don't they say that most people are optimistic about their own future prospects and pessimistic about those of the world in general? It feels like this post is riding a similar see-saw. But it's brought me to the other reason, I guess, why I find myself in conversations about finding some kind of shared base, putting down roots somewhere quieter and more grounded than where I've been living in the recent past. It's that sense – which underpins pretty much everything I've been working on, from Space Makers to the Dark Mountain Project, the Institute for Collapsonomics, Signpostr and even School of Everything – that we could do with tools, habits, ways of thinking which will continue to serve us if and when many of the systems and institutions we've been brought up to rely on turn out to be less reliable than we expected. This isn't about survivalism or some ideal of self-sufficiency, just about doing what we can to loosen our dependence on things we don't understand or control - remembering our (dismembered) ability to meet our own needs.

Well, shake a jar and you see what rattles out! Those seem to be the contents of my head right now: a few marbles rolling away out of sight, perhaps. (What is it they say, better out than in?) But if you followed me this far, I'd love to know where any of this knocks into your thoughts and experiences and attempts to make sense of where things are at.

Also, a few of us are talking about organising some events to open up our "How do you want to live?" conversation - so if you'd like to be part of that, let me know.


Ann said...

Hi Dougald. That's an interesting birthday post! Sorry I was not really 'available' when you rang last night - somewhat pre-occupied. That can be the problem with the 'phone.
Not much time now, but one or two regular thoughts come to mind:
'Those who most want to change the world are most changed by the world.'
'Below, (on earth)to grow is to change, to be perfect is to have changed much.' J H Newman on Jesus, of course. (The perfect man?). Hmmm.
and lastly: Conversation between Malcolm Muggerige & A B of C (wonderful, big, burly man with 'eyebrows' whose name escapes me just now). 'People have often said that you are wise; what do you think they mean?'
'Hmmm, wise, do they? Hmmm, ...
Goes something like that. Maybe if I kept my mouth shut more often someone might describe me as wise... but then again, I doubt it!
much love as ever. max
ps Ramsay - that's the chap!

Dan Thompson said...

Interesting to read your thoughts on parenthood, but don't worry; these ways of living not only survive when we become parents, but actually make being a parent even better, easier and more rewarding. Outside of the London bubble there are plenty of us living interesting lives, doing worthwhile work, and bringing up children.

The advantage of this fluid modern lifestyle is it's easy to fit children into it, rather than (as our grandfathers did) keeping work and home separate, and therefore missing out on much of being a parent.

'A style of living in which all relationships and agreements can be dissolved at a moment's notice' is actually a description of childhood, after all. Wasn't that what it was like for you in the playground, or when your parents moved street, or you changed class?

Dan Olner said...

Thanks for this post, Dougald. Lots of things to respond to, but I'll just pick up on one: asking how to live overlaps some with the idea of 'intentional community'. There's so much written on that, might be worth dipping your toes into. Much of the modern version flowed from the 70s - crises, limits to growth etc. Feels a little like we're spiralling back to a similar place.

In my head, there's some sort of hybrid out there between -



Not necessarily tech-based, but that kind of idea. (Note LILAC in Leeds on the coho site - they're racing ahead. Was only first proposed a couple of years back.)

It's a humbling post, too. I'm spending faaar too much time reading about climate change and resource problems. Yet how we weave our lives with all this uncertainty...?

Dougald Hine said...

Well, that's the first blog post I've written that my mum's ever commented on! :-) Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful responses.

@Ann - thanks for the quotes, mum! I love the Muggeridge/Ramsay one. And I agree about the phone - I think it's my least favourite form of communication - I prefer either the presence of face-to-face, or the opportunity to give time and attention of "asynchronous" communication - letters, email, commenting... (Actually, my least favourite form of communication is the answerphone!)

@Dan - Thanks - I was hoping some of my parent-friends would come in and offer a bit of perspective. I wrote the first half of the post on the train to Cumbria on Sunday, then arrived to stay with Paul and Nav and 23-month-old Lila, who says words like "axolotl" and "abstract" and seems to think I look very amusing. One thing I realise is that many of us have remarkably little contact with children prior to becoming parents ourselves. I guess this is a peculiarly modern thing: fewer large families, more professional care and containment of children, a background level of paranoia about child safety.

But it's very good to hear your enthusiasm for the possibilities of postmodern parenting! (Despite this post, I can never quite use the word "postmodern" without pulling a face...) And it's always good to be reminded of life outside the London bubble. I only succumbed to London two years ago, after resisting it for my entire twenties - and, although I've enjoyed it more than I expected, it's never been a long-term plan.

About the "liquid" lifestyle being a childlike one - some critics would say this is just why it's problematic in adults. Rowan Williams makes an argument along these lines in the first section of 'Lost Icons', which is a really very good book. (I used to feel more comfortable recommending it to people before he became Archbishop of Canterbury!) His point, roughly, is that children need adults whose relationships and agreements are solid in order to create the space of safety for their own fluid lives. Up to a point, I think he's right - when I talked to Indy Johar about Bauman's "liquid modernity", he said he thought what we should be looking for is "appropriate viscosity" rather than an all-out celebration of the fluid. But another part of me says the "invention of childhood" historians have it all upside down - it was grown-uphood that was invented in the modern era...

@Dan - thanks for the links! I share the sense of a coming-together between online and offline communities. It's one of the themes I want Space Makers to explore - First Life, spaces where online and offline meet, or which reflect the collaborative, ambiguous qualities of successful online spaces.

I'm sure you're right that we should be learning from the 1970s - albeit, also putting up with the people who say we've nothing to worry about, because we're just repeating the cycle... LILAC is on the big mind-map my friends have made of places and projects we want to learn more about. Glad to hear it's going well.

I do get slightly stuck with "intentional" communities, though. Without being totally flippant, I've always wanted to start an "unintentional community", something more haphazard, more attentive to what's actually happening, less ideal-oriented. That's why I end up writing hymns to "muddling through". Intentional communities sound orchestrated to me - and my sense is that improvisation is the great skill for 21st century living. (When I eventually leave London, I may even manage to write the book that backs that statement up.)

Dan Olner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Olner said...

Dougald: "I do get slightly stuck with "intentional" communities, though. Without being totally flippant, I've always wanted to start an "unintentional community", something more haphazard, more attentive to what's actually happening, less ideal-oriented. That's why I end up writing hymns to 'muddling through'. "

Absolutely agree, and - sorry - that was something I meant to pick up on from your post. There's a tension between asking that question ("how do we want to live?") and the outcome. The result may be very liquid modern, as you say!

It mirrors the struggles I have with my own work: somewhere between world-as-blueprint-plan built floor by floor and world-as-ants, acting 'intentionally' from our holographic/genetic coding to create some emergent order, what can we hope for?

The other aspect of cohousing-vs-frontporch that makes me think about that point: front porch is precisely about taking the world as it is and muddling through, but muddling in a particular, intentional direction. If we're all goats, wandering across the hills and slowly making paths for others to walk on, how do we let our hopes and choices steer where those paths end up?

Anonymous said...

You're right. 'The Invisibles' is awesome.

Bealers said...

Interesting post.

I don't have a lot to add to the debate other than to say that my wife and I eventually chose the Intentional Community route after 3 years of deciding what to do next (after leaving London). It was the only way we felt we could afford to live a slightly more simple life and bring our kids up in an environment where getting more stuff wasn't the main goal but also to continue to live in the modern world and not have a gruelling subsistence lifestyle.

Some ICs can come with a large list of rules and sometimes some pretty far-out ideologies but others (as some of your other commenters have linked) are simply a collection of very different people brought together by a simple vision, such as affordable housing.

The jury is still out whether we'll live like this for ever but the initial signs are good and the kids *love* it; I'm almost jealous of them.


p.s. Isn't an unintentional community what you get on every street corner?

Dan Olner said...

p.s. Happy birthday! Oops.

Crying Baby Help said...

Join our group and let's share some techniques on how to stop your baby from crying and leave you with a peace of mind. We are also open to other topics of discussion on parenting

marv woodhouse said...

Dougald, we will have to get back in touch sometime soon. What a great post.

I actually think that parenthood has simplified my life. Raising a child has meant that most decisions (work/life/time/money) are a lot clearer cut. After an initial burst of industry at the start of a career by the needing to pay off debt surround one’s self with gadgets and have the odd holiday one starts to question …what’s it all for? Parenthood comes with responsibilty and depandancy but can also provide purpose and meaning.

Legislation (albeit backward compared to most of Europe…no wonder the Danes are the world happiest nation…frequent work in Copenhagen recently made me envious) and changing attitudes in society (especially as to the role of a father) have blurred traditional expectations of 'work' and 'parenthood' …if only a bit.

Your thoughts on fluidity are interesting ... on a microscopic scale I crave structure and routine now because that’s what makes for a happy daughter (for the first 19 months anyhow!)… which means a happy family. However this is in a wider environment of fluidity where we take parental leave, work part-time/full-time/flexitime/at home/job-share/consult and freelance...

Still, many of my children raising peers chosen to relocate close to at least one parent; the driver for this may well be primarily financial (is there anything more expensive nowadays as child care!) but perhaps it reflects a shift in priorities. Is a loving extended family the one thing that advances in technology cannot conveniently deliver to your door? (although most grandparents learn to Skype pretty quickly!) Perhaps an intentional community is the next best thing …or perhaps the only alternative where no functioning family network exists.

One thing you are right about though is those core experience that make us human: forming relationships, spending time together, conversations and above all for me eating together become even more valuable ... the one thing you have less of as a parent is time (or is that freedom?)!

P.S. I have a blog now… a week old (shall be posting a link to your site)
…I’ve only really got round to talking about food… which quite honestly reflects most of my daily thoughts. I am essentially a simple soul!

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This blog was my online home between 2006 and 2009. Today, you'll find me scattered across the internet. To start looking, go to my personal website: http://dougald.co.uk/

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