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.

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London, United Kingdom
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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