As the economies of first world nations continue to fall apart and slide towards “third world” levels, businesses and organizations will need to restructure their mode of operation to account for the now emergent realities of the post-industrial, post-information and post-American age. One part of this process will be a diminishing number of college graduates. As the cost of higher education continues to rise, with little or no guarantee of being able to find a job once a degree is earned, more and more people will side-step the university, whose attendants really only increased to exponential numbers in the boomer years following World War II.
There will still be plenty of work that needs to be done and while trade schools may still prosper, guilds offer another way to train people inside of existing professional organizations. Since I have worked in a Library for over thirteen years I will use it as an example of a public service oriented organization that could see benefit from such a gradual reorganization. I’m not so naive as to think the presidents, VPs and Board of Trustees for companies -whether profit or non-profit- are going to willingly jump on board with the idea of “reverting” to a guild system. What I do think is that it can be used as a way to mitigate the disintegration of companies and organizations as the economy continues to drag its ass into oblivion. This idea stems from the simple observation that in many jobs there are plenty of people who know how to do the work, and have the potential to do the more advanced work, but because professional level training and teaching exist outside of the job, they never get promoted to positions they otherwise might be able to hold, all due to a flimsy piece of paper with a long digital trail of debt behind it.
To begin with let us look at perhaps the most familiar of the legacies of the guilds, the three tiered rung of apprentice, journeyman, and master.
When my grandparents (and to a lesser extent my parents) went into the workforce, they could expect to find entry level positions, no degree required, and work their way up from the bottom to the top if they were diligent in applying themselves. They could also expect to get decent benefits, have a wage they could raise a family on, and even a retirement. All of these factors no longer apply.
I won’t be caught off guard if my retirement money disappears, or due to inflation is worthless by the time I am 65. Yet the work which takes place inside of a library will still be useful to folks 30 years from now. I got my first library job when I was 18. In my year and a half at the Olive Kettering Library of Antioch College I learned the ropes of checking things out to people using the stamp-card system which will come back into play when computers are no longer serviceable. I learned to shelve, shift whole stacks, do some basic interlibrary loan work, and a slew of other beginners stuff.
Then I got my current job at age 21. I continued to learn, this time in a Public Library. I learned the intricacies of a huge system divided into a number of different subject departments. The Main Library has three public floors of books in one building, a connector bridge with magazines and two public floors of books in the other building. Then we have the stacks with three floors of books and materials in one building, and three more in the other. I know my way around this huge collection very well now and have a knowledge of the general content, and an intimate knowledge in certain subject areas. Yet many people who have gotten a degree or in to a higher paying position from outside don’t know their way around what is the bedrock of the whole institution: the collection itself.
I am sure similar stories could be told from people in other fields. The point is, that by starting from the bottom you gain a ground level knowledge and fortify your learning of the cornerstones with hands on experience.
Having spent a sufficient number of years becoming intimate with the collection, I am well situated to become a JOURNEYMAN –or in the parlance of my field, a Library Services Assistant. What has prevented me from promotion so far are the politics emerging from the HR department. This last sentence may have turned what I have said so far into a rant, but I assure you reader I am not trying to have a pity party. The job-seeking environment is incredibly competitive. However what I want to point out is the frequency with which people who have gotten into a “higher” position have not put in as much time with the Library or they came in from outside. De facto, they lack the intimate knowledge I have of the collection from working with it day in and day out. I guess I also am a believer in the timeless virtue of loyalty. And though there are no guarantees in life, rewarding loyal workers who have also demonstrated their competence, is still a foreign idea in environments which have been overly influenced by business books and current corporate philosophy.
In a traditional way of work, starting with the basic elements and moving to the more complex procedures of a given operation would be the natural way of progression -if a person had the inclination, diligence and willingness to learn. As people once again stop attending college, those organizations which continue to exist would do well to have more in-house teaching, training, and one-on-one learning. So often I see people in the workplace come into a job and struggle to gain a thorough command of the collection -which is what the best librarians have. While they may have greater or lesser technical know-how in “Library Science” which now has an increased focus on digital collections, archiving, and so-called social media (which will all become obsolete once the products are no longer capable of being produced) they would be hard pressed to figure out a system for reintroducing card catalogs, or reproducing the system for checking out books to patrons by hand. Those low-tech options will become relevant again in short time. Other fields of work probably have other low-tech options available to them.
What does it mean then to become a MASTER in any field? We may have to search harder for examples, but they are out there among those who have chosen a line of work and stuck with it for the long periods of time it takes to exemplify all that a Master is. From the ineptitude seen by those who postpone “real life” for an extension on their adolescence, it looks like the future may well have less masters in any field than it needs. Society will instead have a glut of adult children who are continuing to party and get high off the fading fumes of gasoline. For those of us who are going to look at the challenges facing human continuity with a sober mind, we can skip the fancy pieces of paper and get to work honing our own skills.
Although competition among those with degrees has increased there will be other work to do besides. The important work of saving the best of our current civilization to be used by our descendants and those who will build a new civilization in the future. How people will be compensated is something else that organizations can look to the guilds of old for guidance on, and will be explored in part two of this series. This will become more and more relevant within what remains of the workplace as benefits continue to disappear. Some of those bottom feeders who remain sticking things out in particular types of 9-5 jobs may well see a “promotion” in their future -even as society as a whole becomes demoted from the lifestyles people are currently accustomed to living in.
Before wrapping this up, I’ll take a brief look at just a few of the work sectors which could be refashioned using the toolkit found in guilds and fraternal societies.
Utility Companies: Water Works could be preserved until it is no longer feasible to deliver running water to each home. A Water Works company could still work on things such as small scale filtration and monitoring chemicals in the water, and setting up alternate forms of water collection in existing homes.
Communications – While long distance lines for telephones may no longer work due to the expensive upkeep, it’s possible phone grids may still be around for some time. Independent, community run radio could do worse than collaborating with HAMs to develop a resilient network of stations capable of delivering news.
Libraries -the Celtic monks helped preserve various aspects of culture following the collapse of Rome, including their own epics. It would be nice to see libraries coupled with printing presses and a slew of scribes/printers. The two activities of making books and preserving them can come together like a peanut butter banana sandwich.
Medicine -truly, allopathic medicine is one of the areas where it is nice to know the person doing brain surgery on you has had a lot of specialized training and schooling. On the alternative side of medicine however, and in the training of midwives and nurses, things could be done differently. And they will, perhaps about ten years from now, when conventional health care is a total miasmic swamp.
Education -not only can we expect a decline of college graduates and university students, young adults will be entering the workforce earlier as well. The highschool drop out won’t be viewed with stigma, but as a person who is facing reality. Homeschooling will rise, as will the return of the single room schoolhouse for grades k-6, approximately. Teacher Associations will be a way for those working in this area to develop projects and techniques together, as well as keep things going. Further developments in Waldorf schooling and Montessori would be welcome.
Hacker Spaces & Clubs – I don’t have faith in the long term viability of silicon computers. Natural computers, like the ones Rudy Rucker has envisioned in his works of Science Fiction and non-fiction may appear, but no one knows when. For awhile though, society will be in transition, and computers will still be around. Already existent hacker spaces and clubs could add elements of guild culture to the work they already do to provide a further service to their members and the community and to become more resilient.
There are plenty more fields to think about -construction work once encompassed the traditional trades of masonry, carpentry and the like. Welders may once again become blacksmiths, etc. None of these will be an overnight change -except when a superstorm wipes out the infrastructure of a whole city and people have to start from scratch again. In the area of law and its enforcement, there will not only have to be judges, lawyers, etc. but also clerks who can keep records by hand -another form of a library, specialized to another field.
Work itself will never go away. The way it is done and managed will continue to change as it always does. The model of the guilds is not something to revert to per se, but a way of looking at how things were done before industrialization that offered clear benefits to people in and out of the guild. We will look at some of those benefits in the follow up post and how they might be deployed in organizations who would like to continue their existence despite shrinking resources.