From one precarity to another

I read a lot about academic precarity. Hourly paid teaching staff whose hours worked bear very little resemblance to the hours for which they get paid. I see the adverts for 10 month posts, supposedly for those who do not have rent to pay over the summer. Every time I do, I say a word of thanks that it is no longer me. That is privilege. But I also feel the sting of remembering when it was me. I remember worrying about getting paid on time (which I often was not). I remember how humiliating it was to have to send messages pleading my case to not have to wait until the next payroll because without a compelling reason ‘they do not do out of cycle payments’. Having money you are contractually owed and need to live off is not considered compelling btw.

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Precarity at the end of my PhD meant always deferring spending, managing budgets and fighting the feeling that I was worth only the money I could earn, even with the privilege of a partner in full time well-paid work at that time. Precarity meant rarely making plans past the end of the current contract and struggling to imagine where I would be in the near or far future. It was an anxious state.

In May 2017 I got a job. Without an end date. But I did not get an end to precarity.

While less so, there is now an underlying current of precarity that permeates much academia. In my field, well regarded and well performing departments are seeing staff cut. There were redundancies at my own institution last summer. I’m permanent and through my probation period, but I by no means feel secure in my role. I feel the pressures of REF, TEF and funding that continually remind me that I have to earn my keep by someone else’s definition of what that means. I launched a brand new degree in 2017 and know that it has to develop and grow to justify the resources behind it.

But hugely overshadowed by that is the feeling that my entire life is precarious.

In May 2017 my partner collapsed while we were on a weekend break to Oxford.

It was the beginning of a period of worryingly fast decline in his health. He has never worked more than one day a week since then, had a spell where he did not work at all, and is currently too unwell to work. Prior to May 2017, he was a regular gym goer, cyclist, full time worker, part time volunteer and more. This stopped abruptly, plunging us into unfamiliar and worrying waters. We spent months having a glut of tests while he got worse. For over a year we had the uncertainty of waiting for a diagnosis and treatment plan, waiting for an appointment to see the specialist who could help. It never came. He stopped being offered tests. There was nothing left to test for, they said. Eventually, we got a copy of a letter sent four months earlier to our GP with the ME/CFS diagnosis. It was the last time we heard from a specialist for sixteen months.

In July 2018 he bought a walking stick to help him get about.

In January 2019 he bought a manual wheelchair as he got tired too quickly using his stick outside.

In August 2019 he bought an electric wheelchair as he could no longer manage the manual wheelchair.

In October 2019 Al gave up his very part time work as he was too ill to work anymore.

In October 2019 we finally heard from the fatigue clinic. They could only offer in person appointments for discredited treatment that Al is not well enough to attend. He is too ill for treatment. There is no alternative on the table.

For all we know, he could get worse. Any recovery is likely to be partial.

In all the time he has been ill and I have been his carer, uncertainty has been the norm. We live a precarious life. The future is a not a thing we plan for. We are constantly adapting to the severity of symptoms at any given time and feeling that being able to cope is balanced on a knife edge, easily toppled by a bad spell of PEM, or extra pressures on me (and therefore our care arrangements). We are precariously waiting on a troublesome benefits system, with delays and appeals the norm. Delays which could see us slide into debt. Those financial worries from my ECR days are trained like muscle memory to come straight back whenever he has a really bad day. Or I worry about the future of my own role. Or a brown envelope from the DWP arrives.

Did my thankfully short period as an insecure ECR prepare me for this new kind of precarious living? Perhaps it simply tuned me in to the worries that come with it, and a state of anxiety. Either way, in May 2017 I swapped one type of precarity for another.

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