I am not my own product

by Julie Macken

I remember the first time I realised we had all entered a new global paradigm where my humanity had just been devalued – a great deal. 

I was a journalist with The Australian Financial Review (AFR). The AFR was a newspaper owned by Fairfax at the time. We had a new CEO, a money man and one who valued his own opinion about what made a great newspaper. Although he told all of us on his first day that he didn’t read newspapers….

We had just had a gaggle of young consultants through our newsroom, production facilities and our heads. They were there to cut the costs of operating a national newspaper which means they were there to sack the older journalists.  But of course you can’t charge millions of dollars for just sacking people, you have to make it look like you have a strategy. Like you’re a clever kid. 

So they started to talk about things like, “becoming your own brand” and seeing yourself as a “portfolio worker”. A portfolio worker may sound like an artists or designer, but it is in fact someone who is doing a whole host of different kinds of work. When one work stream dries up, the clever portfolio worker just flips over to the next job. All seamless and exciting and fulfilling and very lucrative.

In later years this person would become better known as a member of the ill-named “gig-economy”. As if working in precarious, insecure employment where you are paid by the delivery or piecemeal work is kind of like a disco or music concert!

Anyway, back at the AFR the older journalists began to look for work elsewhere and those of us who remained in the union began to organise to try and ensure a more dignified process of sacking people who had been with the company for decades.

I didn’t know at the time that we were witnessing the atomisation of our work community and work practices. We didn’t know that these discussions were part of a much larger global movement of capital out of the public service and into the private sector. That the move toward small government, atomised workplaces full of people who had become their own brand and the beginning of the end of a commonly owned Australia was already underway.

But if this pandemic has taught us anything in Australia, it is that when push comes to shove, we need big government to support us and carry us through to safer harbours. We discovered that those nearly two million members of the gig economy – the people stacking shelves, delivering hamburgers at midnight and driving our kids home – are the most vulnerable workers in the nation. They are the ones who became the first sacrifice zone as Covid-19 ripped through our cities in 2020 and 2021. We discovered that in 2020 the proportion of all Australian workers without paid sick leave was 37%. We realised at terrible cost that the for-profit aged-care homes did not have the level of staffing or trained workers the public aged-care homes had. And we learned that this mattered enormously.

Over the last two years we learnt that big government is needed in health, in welfare, in the provision of quarantine places, masks, tests and vaccines. Without big government we are left to a brutal and deadly form of laissez faire that sees the fittest survive and the powerless go under.

This is not our gospel. We were not born to become our own brand in a lonely atomised world where we live in service to the economy. We were born to love and live in interdependency with each other. I never want to become my own brand.