Working beyond 9 to 5: academia, graduate school and the future

ImageWhen I was 18 years old I took what I would call a ‘gap year’. My mother might call it the year I wasted between high school and university. Opinions about whether this experience was in fact valid differ in my family but I’m generally very happy it happened. Fresh out of high school and eager to leave my mother’s house for life in the city, I found myself looking for work. At the time, I was tipped off about my employability in corporate Amsterdam due to my fluency in multiple languages and international background. (Ah, the utopian transnational sphere… How I have always gravitated towards thee.)

There I was, 18 years old and terrified. I had virtually no experience and hadn’t exactly gotten the memo about a high school diploma being sufficient for any type of job from which you could live. In fact, I would say my parents managed to keep this little gem of secret from me for quite a while. Not pursuing higher education was never really an option at my house. Not pursuing it fresh out to high school was already severely frowned upon, but the ‘not at all’ option was simply not there.

In Amsterdam I quickly began to meet several people who opted to skip ‘University Avenue’ and go down ‘Entry-level Job Road’ as a survival strategy. And what’s more (to my utter surprise) they were all pretty fucking fine. They had steady jobs and disposable incomes and were buying property all over the place. So the capitalist dream was possible with or without four more years of school. Guys, I was shocked. And yes, I do realize how absurd all of this sounds now, but you must imagine that at that point, all of this was seriously news to me.

Eventually I landed a job at an international company doing customer service. I used all of my language skills and worked from 9-5 with the most diverse group of people I had met since leaving the international school I attended in middle school. Only they were perhaps a little more diverse because I was practically a child compared to my brand new colleagues. Life was good and it was oh-so-simple. Undeniably dull at times, but mostly uncomplicated. The company I worked for had a bonus system and my productivity rate was high due to the sheer amount of language lines they connected me to – I think at one point they even put me on the French line and you should trust me when I say my French is as elementary as they come. I began to find myself flirting with financial independence for the first time in my life. I began having acquisitive power. And in a way, a whole lot of freedom.

I was fully aware that for 8.5 hours a day I was enslaved to some whatever job at a company. And that my brain was starting to develop a lazy pattern of repetition from doing non-stimulating work. But came 5 in the afternoon and I was free. After years of high school, for once I had no homework. No need to take any work home with me. No need to do anything, really. Ever. And after hours of repetitive and dull work which involved among other things arguing with privileged consumers of luxury services who perceived the human being at the other end of the line to be a personification of the corporation they had gone ‘into business’ with, the very last thing I wanted to do was think. Or read. I was definitely physically free at 5pm. But thinking back on it now, I was mentally very much trapped.

I was trapped in a vicious cycle of selling my mental capacity of switching back and forth between languages or thinking on my feet, only to be fully mentally exhausted at the end of a working day. Slowly I started losing interest in the things that had always engaged me: world politics, the economy, quality cinema. I had money to consume, but I was buying things and short-term experiences, not ideas. I had no real mental stamina to consume ideas.

I knew after a few months on the job that my mother had been right about me (the first of many epiphanies that end with ‘my mom was right’…). I went back to school and began the long path that led me to graduate school now. It has been an up-and-down road. I didn’t actually stop working for a corporation until about two years ago. Emotionally and mentally taxing as it was to combine intellectual work at university with ‘proletarian mental work’ at my part-time job, studying Marxism while working for a multinational on the face of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was quite a remarkable experience. I saw capitalist logic unfold in front of me. I was the instrument of the oppressor and yet I was part of the oppressed. I saw, for instance, how the focus on productivity began to weigh on our team morale. We were being driven to insanity to justify the very existence of our office in a European capital with its expensive workers. I witnessed first-hand how our email traffic was ‘outsourced’ to a more ‘productive’ part of the world and the consequences that this had for the part-time workers’ hours. I continue to profit from those experiences personally, socially and academically even today. I lived it all very intensely until I decided that I couldn’t really juggle that kind of high-stress job with a high-stress academic life. And so I quit.

Since I started truly prioritizing my studies, my ambitions have changed. As has my idea of what exactly constitutes freedom. I recently admitted to myself that I would very much like a job in academia in the future. And I largely feel that this means accepting that the physical freedom which I had in my 9 to 5 reality no longer exists. I will forever work seven days a week. If there were eight days in a week, I probably would work all eight also.

I will forever be my own ‘boss’ and be responsible for my own level of productivity. I will be able to decide to give myself the afternoon off, so long as I am willing to really kick it up a notch the following day or whenever else closer to one of the many deadlines running parallel to one another. And in a way that’s a concept that works for me. Because to me, being truly good in the Social Sciences, and being intellectually engaged inevitably means consuming and producing ideas but first and foremost being in touch with social life. Life outside of academia is what defines the course that academia will take. This dance, and trying to find the balance between them, is constant.

And yet this intellectual-freedom-while-not-ever-feeling-free thing is very fucking exhausting. Every now and then I find myself in a state of near-desperation. I crave a weekend of ‘whateverness’, or an afternoon of doing fuck-all fully guilt-free. Sometimes I console myself by thinking that I’m almost half-way through obtaining my master’s degree. Then an email comes in, from an esteemed professor, at 8pm on a Sunday or 3pm on a Saturday. And I am quickly reminded that this life that I want for the future isn’t too different from the one I have now. 

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