I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago where I, among other things, attended an event on good work and alternative organizing. It caught my eye in the conference program, as it sounded pretty much exactly like what I am currently researching and spending most of my time thinking about. That is, what constitutes good work and how we can create different solutions for work that are sustainable but that also cater to the diverse wants, needs, and objectives of the people who make up the work force?
The event was basically a panel discussion between scholars who research different types of organizing and much of the discussion revolved around work cooperatives. A work cooperative is an organization that is owned and self-managed by its workers. Either the workers are all democratically involved in the decision-making together, or they elect a person to manage the cooperative and make decisions for them. The work cooperative follows certain principles like democracy, training, and control, which provides meaning and is also one of the reasons it might appeal to people as a solution for organizing.
This struck a chord with me because control is one of the major issues that comes up in narratives of opting out and in. People experience little or no control over their lives and their time before opting out, but once they have opted in to new lifestyles, mindsets and solutions for work, they gain control over when, where, and how they work, which not only is important to them, it also adds to their sense of authenticity and wellbeing. (You can read more about that here and here.)
Another thing that I found interesting was that the researcher who had been studying cooperatives was obviously very intrigued by this way of organizing. When talking about cooperatives, she confessed that she was almost reluctant to admit that work in cooperatives can also be problematic as it can be precarious and lack security. In other words, it is not always a good solution for everyone. She was reluctant because she kind of really wanted it to be.
As someone who researches opting out and in, I can recognize that feeling. One of the things that is symptomatic of opting out and in, is that people generally come out the other end of their journeys – which can be very difficult and troubling experiences – feeling happy and better about themselves simply because they have more control and they feel like they can finally be themselves. Because of that they typically feel that their journey has been a successful one, and it becomes easy to think that maybe it could be a solution for everyone. But it isn’t.
Success is actually quite a complex and multifaceted issue. When we speak of success, we have to ask ourselves, out of whose perspective? When people opt out of successful careers, they often give up their high salaries, which, in turn, may have a direct effect on their pensions later on in life. This is something they seldom think of at the time. It might also entail an increased dependence on a spouse, which makes a person more vulnerable should something happen (for more about that, I can recommend The Feminine Mistakeby Leslie Bennetts). And then there is of course the societal perspective. If women, for example, opt out of power positions in society by choosing not to have careers, how will that effect gendered structures and gender equality?
No, even though opting out and in can be a wonderful and emancipating experience in many ways – I should know, I’ve been on my own opting out and in journey for the past decade – it’s not a solution for everyone, nor should it be. And to have an increasing number of people opt out is, in the long run, certainly not a sustainable solution out of a societal perspective.
So the answer isn’t to abandon all traditional ways of organizing. The answer is to change organizations from the inside. We need to help organizations create sites for good work, where people can have a sense of control and wellbeing so that they won’t feel a need to opt out or choose precarious work in order to feel authentic and find meaning. That will of course mean different things to different people, but what it would mean for organizations is that instead of just talking about it, they would have to really embrace diversity in the real meaning of the word.
That is what we need to do to create sustainable solutions for work, solutions that are sustainable not only for the employee, but for the employer and for the economy as well.