There’s a billboard that crosses my eyeline as I sit on the Tube on the way to work. It’s for Marks & Spencers, and it depicts Jamie Redknapp, with his plain white shirt (top button open, obviously) and a casual blazer on top. A champagne flute hangs over his crossed arms in an authentically manipulated pose: a self-conscious projection of an image of matured success, of satisfaction, of a chatter party in some ample Chelsea garden, the sort of place where people just seem to glow with affluent smugness. When the mid-morning sun hits the board, his fashioned stubble proffers a sort of smile; but in the sun’s absence, his forced brow – burdened with the effort of manufacturing a relaxed expression – funnels a rather apprehensive, untrusting glance through the grey and onto the commuter.
Upon catching Jamie’s ambiguous eye, I tend to then hurriedly swivel around to shovel my lesson preparation – a pile of crinkled papers, ripped books and beaten folders – into my rucksack. I teach EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a private, independent language school, three streets’ walk from the station. Some people may view teaching as a comfortable dedication, practiced by skilled, comfortable individuals, but my school is every bit as much of a facade as the relaxed, nouveau riche aspirations conveyed by Redknapp’s face.
As the billboard implies, the area it finds itself in is picture perfect West London, full of £1.5million plus houses in which the banal phone conversations of double-barrelled Sloanes echo between large bay windows, themselves illuminated by chandeliers and adorned with Port Merrion. The school itself is housed in a vintage building, which they say used to be some sort of hostel. But while its oak-panelled stairways and narrow corridors may make for a charmingly English backdrop on a Facebook snap for any one of the 700 odd students that arrive from Colombia, South Korea, Thailand, Mongolia, Turkey – almost any country you can think of – the novelty must start to erode when they’re stuck alongside 15 fidgeting, frowning adults hunched over an all-in-one chair and desk in a small attic single room, the sloped roof being considerably larger than the sole window.
At any one time, I can hope to hold down two daily classes of three hours each, although such is the air of uncertainty around young, qualified TEFLs that I’m constantly sweating about low intakes, Home Office legislation, the strict hierarchy over classes, the threat of a split shift (14 hours/day out of the house for maybe £55 a pop, fuck that), a British Council spot inspection (we’re not popular over there), etc, etc. “With things the way they are right now,” my Director of Studies – another bleach blonde, friendly, apologetic, but reluctant to really chat – keeps on saying to the sympathetic but miserable nods of hourless twentysomethings in ballet pumps in the miniscule staffroom, “y’know how it is…”.
My contract runs for a term at a time, that’s three to four months. Currently it only guarantees me one class, meaning that I’m technically working 50% overtime every damn day, which they could take away whenever they want. And that’s not counting the unpaid overtime that every teacher does, whether it’s by photocopying during our quick breaks, or coming into work early to plan a class, or even redacting our own exercises at home. Every second that we aren’t physically in the classroom is unpaid.
Still, at least I have a contract. As many as half of my 40 or so colleagues took the DOS’ recommendation and registered as self-employed (“it’s easy and the only difference is that I have to sort my own taxes”), denying themselves any sort of protection from summary dismissal. They seem pretty unconcerned though, being – as most of the teachers my age are – out of work actors, or part-time models, or opera workers. Once again the swindle of the grand walls fools them, inducing the snobbery that comes with the great myth of ‘Best’ West, Portobello London that M&S et al present to us. Much like them, I’m supposed to see TEFL as a fallback option, another string to the bow, a temporary indignity. No real need to worry oneself about the contract or conditions really, is there now? I’m alright, Jack.
Noone here has ever been in a union, and it seems improbable that any of them have ever seen any kind of industrial action. The ESOL teachers in the public sector, the FE tutors with their comparatively handsome pay packets relative to our McWages, with their salaries, union branches, and so on, are bitterly reviled – amongst a couple of the older workers at least – for being spoilt, overvalued brats. Most of the younger teachers won’t even concern themselves with the comparison though, since the wages and conditions are a fait accompli. And besides, it’s not like it’s a real job, is it?
Of course, I shouldn’t complain. Undignifying and insulting as my wages and conditions are, they’re hardly atypical for my generation. In fact, in many ways, the under-30s find themselves in the land that the left forgot, spending their waking hours sipping instant coffee in figurative, litter-strewn favelas behind the shiny great white elephant developments that the union movement so jealously guards (the public sector pension plan, the below-inflation payrise, the welfare state, etc), and neglected by those who would assimilate the working class with the thin slither of union members bothered enough to attend meetings. To the run of the mill union activist, the young graduate worker is an irrelevant déclassé, an anonymous, nebulous mass. We don’t have the free time, energy or networking potential of a good student footsoldier activist – for whom they usually mistake us anyway – and neither are we mature enough to have found a proper job, one with a union branch, one where we can pass their facile, self-perpetuating motions about Palestine and Libya.
Perhaps we’re merely a product of our environment. Reality shows offer us banality as a raison d’être – nay, a route to success – while high culture, finance and politics expect us to sacrifice ourselves as interned slaves, polishing brass in the corridors of power for a meal ticket. Meanwhile, MTV – with its constant stream of garish colours and white noise – has given us all ADHD, neatly preparing us for the Buddhist truth of all life being temporary. Indeed, it could well take Buddha himself to explain why so many of us aimlessly drift through temp positions, throwing Gallic shrugs to the wind and snorting, burning or pissing our payslips into overdrafts. The work-leisure binary that the Situationists so ruthlessly critiqued has had its laces untied by the Smartphone, which intertwines job searches, interviews and actual paid work with social calls and friendly conversation, all done while eating lunch on public transport. Fuck being on the clock, do we even know the time anymore?
So is it any wonder that the politicised pro-working class minority won’t touch us then? At times, it almost seems like we’re some sort of Other to them, the marginalised pseudo-peasantry, hovering nervously on the cusp of proletarianisation. We can’t – and won’t – join a union, and most of us won’t ever join a political party, so what’s the point of ‘organising’ us? Many left groups will make much fuss about recruiting young people, partially as window candy (youth evokes dynamism and makes them look exciting, y’see) but also because of our greater banks of energy and lack of familial commitments. But when we are enlisted to The Cause, it’s as hobbyist activists in the mould of a pompous gap yah volunteer, relinquishing our free time and moral fortitude to support issues which, while they don’t directly concern us, definitely twinge at our heartstrings. In this context, our jobs are merely regarded as unwelcome embarrassments, temporary interferences of our passionately-undertaken meeting and leafleting slots.
However, the more that the entrenched power structures ignore the young, the stronger they become. The last 12 months has seen the emergence of the new narrative – that of the kid riled up to the point of recklessness (oh, how youthful!)- splashed all over our TVs and Youtubes: smashed windows on Millbank, self-immolation for change in Sidi Bouzid, Molotovs confronting tanks in Misrata, and so on. These are the expressions of a politically disenfranchised youth, of people who are systematically disadvantaged in the labour market, the housing ladder and in the political arena. Of course, contrary to the mock jubilation of mainstream discourse about the self-fulfilling frenzies around Tahrir Square and whatnot, victory is still a long way away, and the youth won’t do it by themselves. This moment isn’t “our 1960s” (for a start, 21st century popular culture is far too fleeting and intangibly vague to form the spine of a youth movement) and neither are we revolting just because we’re young.
You have to admit that our folks had it better though, right? Our middle-class parents’ emphasis on education – coupled with the creeping saturation of the media-borne record of the recent past – have granted the young person a memory that is older than the bones in his/her body. As we are pushed into the abyss by austerity, authority, conservatism and the landslide that is capital, it may seem as if our only recourse is to grasp at the stalks that have cautiously emerged from the rockface above our heads. However, much like Homer in one of the early Simpsons episodes, our efforts at self-preservation serve only to bruise and graze us while we hurtle towards our end.
I am not satisfied with the mere retention of my parents’ lifestyle. In its inimitable fashion, the left calls on us to save the NHS, defend social benefits, and campaign for “the right to work”. It is but one small stitch in the tapestry of self-deceit, where we are expected to deny that we spend our hours in modern workhouses, sniffing posies against the plague while our Hi-Tops gingerly tiptoe around corpses (and not only that, but that we want the ‘right’ to be able to do so!). We are angry, confident and self-righteous, so my question is: how audacious is our collective sense of entitlement?