So Brainstorm comrade Dan Greenberg has had a couple of great posts about academic labor in the sciences recently. A few days ago, he commented on the fake undersupply of scientists, essentially pointing out that labor markets are socially structured. When capitalists, universities, and farm employers don’t want to pay fair wages for work, they ask governments to help by saying that fruit pickers or software engineers are “in short supply,” so can they please import some workers willing to accept the low wages?

What this really means is that they’re in short supply at the crappy wages being offered, and the employers are begging the government to rig–I mean “socially structure”–the market in their favor. As Dan puts it, “The abundantly endowed Gates Foundation might attempt a useful experiment in talent supply. Advertise doubled pay for software engineers. A negligible response is not likely.”

In today’s post, Dan observes that we’re eating our young. (Okay, okay, he more politely quoted someone saying “We’re eating our seed corn.”)

Thousands of young Ph.D.‘s are stacked up in minimum-wage postdoc holding patterns for lack of full-fledged positions. For years it’s been predicted that droves of old-timers would be stepping down from academic posts, making room for a new generation. But the seniors of science continue to show wondrous durability, perhaps because the grant system is loaded in their favor.

This is one area where I’ve done a bit of work. Dan’s also employing what passes for “labor market” theory in writing about academic labor–when he talks about science “seniors” not clearing out, he’s suggesting that the system has a glitch and that sooner or later we’ll be able to employ those thousands of young PhDs.

The problem with this line of thinking (NOT Dan’s thinking) is that it assumes, inaccurately, that the academic labor market is a market in “jobs” when it is actually a market in contingent labor. When you look at it as if were what we call it–the “job market”–something we dearly wish it was–it looks mysteriously broken, and we don’t know how to fix it. Brilliant labor economists like William G. Bowen make ridiculously erroneous projections about it.

But when you look at it for what it is–a labor market in contingency–you see that it’s actually functioning brilliantly. Exploitative, dishonest as hell, cannibalizing of the young–but functioning just as it is designed to do, to produce ultra-cheap workers–first as students, then as postdocs or contingent faculty. Increasingly undergraduate workers are drawn into this contingent labor market. The tenure-stream employment in many sectors–certain sciences, many humanities–is increasingly epiphenomenal, providing a layer of legitimacy/public relations, some grant income, an upper-management candidate pool, and day-to-day supervision of contingent workers.

As an added benefit, the minority who end up working in the tenure stream do so at lower wages because the price of the tenured is undercut by all the contingents. The “job market,” so-called, is therefore a rhetoric of the labor system and not a description of it. A true “labor market” analysis of academic labor would have to begin not with the superstructure of tenure-track jobs but with a rigorous analysis of the contingent base–the ways that the system produces and legitimates contingency. Including the legitimation provided by the institutional myth-making of presidents who urge “teaching for love” on other people while whacking away the cheese for themselves.

All this is discussed in detail in the free downloadable pdf of the introduction to How The University Works.






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