The economist Larry Smith once said “Those trying to have good careers are going to fail, because really good jobs are now disappearing. There are great jobs and great careers and then there are the high-workload, high-stress, bloodsucking, soul-destroying kinds of jobs, and practically nothing in between“.
I whole-heartedly agree. Once upon a time, following the Second World War, it was possible to have secure, well-paying jobs in which one wage-earner could support a family, pay a mortgage etc, and expect to stay in the same job until retirement. These jobs were available for both blue-collar skilled workers, and white-collar managers.
Those days are gone for ever. Outsourcing and offshoring enabled by globalisation killed off the former; software automation, the Internet, and – again – globalisation are killing the latter. As (to use Neal Stephenson’s phrase) the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity, the banks, corporations, hedge funds and so on are squeezing the remaining workforce for every last penny of profit.
That means that we either find ourselves a great job – one in which we are in charge of our own affairs, doing something we enjoy, and from which we retain the profit ourselves – or we find ourselves in wage-slave hell: micromanaged, overworked, performance-monitored to within an inch of our lives, and always in fear of the sack. In the meantime, the management classes are scrambling to take as much as they can for themselves.
Even more dispiriting is the strong likelihood that things will only get worse. I talk about this sort of thing more over on my main blog, but it seems plain to me that the forces which drove the great post-Cold War global boom have run out of steam. We’ve reached the limits of resources such as oil and water, and now political and economic structures are beginning to collapse as a result.
But, you may ask, what does all of this have to do with a martial arts blog?
Well, it’s relevant precisely because of the way jobs are going. The role I’ve had for the past eight years, that of university lecturer, is pretty much finished. For the last three years, it’s been just as Larry Smith described: “high-workload, high-stress, bloodsucking, [and] soul-destroying”. This is by no means unique to the institution where I was working; I gather it’s widespread in the industry. In any case, as universities try to become self-sustaining financially while not being able to get their graduates into meaningful jobs, that industry is quite clearly going to contract significantly; many hard-working academics who still think they’ll be working there until retirement are going to find themselves unceremoniously out on their ears. So, it’s time to walk away from that.
What alternatives are there? If you believe, as I do, that the global economic system as we know it has reached its limits and can now only contract, then there will be a great re-localisation. That means developing sustainable skills to meet local needs. Transition blogger Jason Heppenstall recently posted a very good blog post on this topic: Skilling up for the future. He’s building up a portfolio of skills including agroforestry, crafts, fishing, and brewing. This is an approach I agree with. Over the past few years, I’ve been building up a similar portfolio; my garden is being turned into to a food forest, and I’ve been studying crafts such as clothes-making and upholstery. I haven’t yet reached the point where I could use these skills to live, though, and – having quit my job as a lecturer – they’re going to have to be put on hold for a few years.
Since I’m qualified to teach English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL), that’s my immediate fallback career – which allows me to travel abroad. I was offered jobs in St. Petersburg and Beijing, with other offers likely. So, why St Petersburg? Especially when, as long-time readers know, I have such strong connections with China?
The answer lies in a swift PESTLE analysis. My forecast is that a lot of trade and business is likely to break down in the years to come, with lots of business ceasing or breaking down. As Jason noted in his post, this is going to require people to depend on their community a great deal more than is usually the case now. I also anticipate that there will be a lot of unrest, and a higher level of threats against person and property.
So… my passion for much of the last decade has been martial arts. I’ve always focussed on the personal development and health aspects more than combat applications, though it’s fair to say I’ve learned something of that as well. If I want to work for myself, doing something I love… hmmm. There is perhaps a niche there…
…except that there isn’t. The traditional Chinese internal martial arts that I’ve studied are slow, intensely personal arts. They’re extremely rewarding, but they take time, effort, and deep personal reflection. Furthermore. they’re little-known and poorly-understood in the West; most people have only heard of taijiquan, and don’t really understand that. Even in the boom times, taiji hasn’t really been massively popular; I don’t think that there is going to be a market for it at all in a time of economic and social disruption. People simply won’t have the time, or see it as a good investment. Thus: pursuing Chinese martial arts at this time would be personally fulfilling, but is not an economically useful investment.
In Russia, though, there’s an alternative.
The Russian martial arts are also practically unknown in the West: but it doesn’t matter. Depending on the particular school, they can run the gamut from choral singing and group dancing, through unarmed combat and traditional weapons such as sabre and spear, up to the use of the Makarov pistol and the AK47. Because many of them are based on Cossack dancing, they offer group activity and community-building; they’re entertainment as well as (or instead of) self-defence. Under the Soviets, teaching methods were refined to allow rapid acquisition of the techniques.
My feeling is that as times become tougher and more uncertain, the various aspects of these arts will have a lot to offer in the communities of the West; the skills are transferrable to a number of other potential careers including health maintenance, acting, and security and close protection, so time invested in training up may bring benefits in a number of ways. It just so happens that a number of good teachers of the Russian arts are based in St Petersburg! I’ll discuss some of them in another post.
More particularly, the Russians know about social and economic collapse – after the Soviet Union faded away, the Yeltsin government followed the advice of Western financial advisers, and imposed radical economic reforms. It’s fair to say that these caused a great deal of hardship. A number of schools of Russian martial arts also act as community re-development organisations, dealing with the consequences of social fracture, including substance abuse, domestic violence, and the like. I suspect there will be increased need for this in the West, as well, as we experience something of what the Russians went through in the 1990s.
Russian martial arts on their own won’t be a career – but they do offer the opportunity of making some money on my own account, doing something I enjoy. It’ll on be a part of a revenue portfolio, I hope – but that kind of personal strategic planning is something I discuss on my other blog.
Image credit: KEC1989001W00596-7 by grofjardanhazy [GRJ.hu], on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.