Is education losing its blade as a guarantee of a secure future?

Working life fragilizes and feminizes

World of research. The level of education is already so high in Finland that career security cannot be achieved through education the way it once was. Nevertheless, one must constantly be better, says work researcher Tuija Koivunen.


How is working life changing?

“For a while now, the big trend has been that work becomes more and more uncertain. This phenomenon does not yet show properly in big data sets, as the precarization or “embrittlement/fragility” probably does not apply to the entire working life. However, there are certain groups of people, in particular careers or positions, whose work prospects are becoming more and more uncertain.

These people must constantly keep doing a lot of work that aims at acquiring more work – such as maintaining their portfolio. Also, the division between work and leisure time is getting more blurred for temporary employees.

The subject is close to my heart, because I as a researcher belong to this group. I too should all the time think about what looks good on my CV and how will I get the next funding. I see this mostly from an expert work point-of-view, but embrittlement/fragilizing affects also other occupations.

At the same time work subjectifies, becomes more personal. Nowadays, a good employee understands how they must represent their employer: how they should dress, behave, what they can and cannot do. Before these rules came from the employer. Now the employee needs to independently internalize, how to present the company’s image to the customers.

It is good to note that as long as there has been paid labour, it has been changing. These changes can be seen clearly only afterwards.”

Tuija Koivunen

  • Born in Ylöjärvi, Finland, 1971;
  • holds PhD in Social Sciences, researcher at University of Tampere;
  • focuses on feminist work research;
  • published a scientific article in the journal of Adult Education called “Full-time unemployed” (Täyttä päivää työttömänä/Aikuiskasvatus 4/2016). The article is about the phenomenon of precarization of work life. The empirical analysis involved 21 semi-structured thematic interviews.
  • The article brings up three trends: precarization, subjectivation and feminization of work life and substitutes that these trends treat different people very differently based on their personal traits and gender.

”Certain themes reoccur in my research. The most important are how various differences – such as gender, age, and the so-called race affect and organize people and things in the society”, says Tuija Koivunen.

In the article, you mention that the working life is also feminizing. What does this mean?

”Feminization of working life has many facets. The quantitative aspects of feminization refer to the fact that the number of women in employment is increasing. This is not a very new trend in Finland as for a long time there has been a lot of women in the working life. Qualitative feminization refers to the trend that skills or features that are typically considered feminine are appreciated more in the working life.

To illustrate, these skills are a bit like taking care of a small child. You should be always in a good mood. When a child needs something, the other tasks must wait. Also at work, if someone requires your attention, you need to interrupt whatever you are doing. You must be available to others all the time.

Also, service skills have become a part of all professions. For example, as my university outsourced the cleaning services, I’ve become a representative of the customer for the cleaner, who should then be kind to me. For example, in the IT industry, before there were “programmer geeks”, who did not have to be dealing with anyone, at least not without using a computer. Now they need to be kind, and able to talk to people in a language that laypeople understand. This may sound funny to a journalist, because others are doing it quite naturally. But this is not the case for everyone.

As the working life feminizes, men are required to possess these qualities and skills as well as women. The problem is that many times men get rewarded for harnessing these skills but the women do not, because women are thought to possess the skills ‘naturally’.”

Who benefits from this development and who suffers?

“People, who know how to exploit the situation and for whom this kind of work does not require any extra effort, will of course benefit. Others will need to exert themselves a lot to remain social and good-humoured, and these traits may require some further maintenance during their leisure time. Those who get exhausted by it, may suffer quite a lot from the trend.”

In the article, you also wrote that especially women suffer from precarious work. Why?

“Absolutely. Of course, one cannot say that the embrittlement would not affect the situation of men, but our labour market is so heavily segregated based on gender, that none of what is happening in the working life, treats men and women equally.

For example, with respect to education and training in Finland, women of all age groups are on average better educated than men. But this is not reflected in women’s labour market position or salary in any way. Women must study more than men, but they still do not enjoy similar benefits. It’s a bit of a trap.

This is because of the gender order: men are hierarchically higher through the whole of society than women. No matter how Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s government programme would state that ‘in Finland that women and men are equal’, it is nonsense, they are not!”

And what could be the kind of education that would help people to cope and succeed in a precarious labour market? For example, is there something women could do to improve their situation?

“I’m a little pessimistic about this. Women’s education is losing its value all the time [in Finland]. The more educated people we have, the less their training is needed and appreciated.

From the point of view of an individual, training is a very good thing, if it happens on a voluntary basis, if it gives new tools to one’s work, or if it offers variation, fulfilment and content to life or whatever good things that can possibly be obtained through education. But in a larger picture, I do not see that it will save anyone in the more and more fragile working life.

And as you asked about what could women do, I must say I’m pretty tired of hearing that women should be more such or such, or to do this or that. Women get blamed all the time. This is not the type of problem that individuals can solve.”

Do you think these labour market trends are inevitable? Do we just need to cope with precarization, or are there some ways in which we might try to resist it?

“The coping strategy that the society offers now, is entrepreneurship. But somehow, I do not buy it. There is nothing to support the view that entrepreneurship should be an answer to embrittlement/fragilization. Especially because the majority of people to resort to this would be small entrepreneurs or self-employed.

As a political means, it would help if the legislation and other instances would recognize the diverse situations people may find themselves in and that careers for many have become fragmented. The social security model should not be limited to two options: full-time employed or full-time unemployed.”