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Cruel Optimism and Precarious Employment: The Crisis Ordinariness of Academic Work

Abstract

Precarious employment is commonplace within the University-as-business model. Neoliberal and New Public Management agendas have influenced widespread insecurity, and limited career progression pathways within academic work. Qualitative multi-case data inform this investigation of how young academic workers cope with, and justify, their precarious situations in a large Australian university. This article introduces the notion of cruel optimism to analyse the unethical exploitation of desires of precariously employed academics. This analytical engagement extends empathetic engagement with the lived experiences and rationalisations of precariously employed academic workers, paying homage to their desires and negotiations. Findings demonstrate that participants were heavily invested in working towards achieving their good life fantasy which encompassed secure employment and the recognition this provided. Cruel optimism operated as participants developed coping mechanisms to deal with the ongoingness of their troubling situation as precarious workers uncertain how to change their precarious circumstances. Participants experienced cruel optimism as they navigated through issues of identity, control, and desire, related to their present and future lives as academic workers experiencing an impasse of crisis ordinariness. Optimism directed towards the academic scene of desire motivated participants’ daily actions and informed their understandings. Ethical elements of the impasse of precarious employment are presented in relation to the neoliberal and New Public Management-oriented University context. This article provides a novel conceptualisation of how precarious employment contributes to a relation of cruel optimism among workers by highlighting how organisations exploit the desires of insecure employees for extended periods of time, contributing to an impasse of crisis ordinariness.

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Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Dr Jane Bone for encouragement to engage with this theory and excellent feedback—a true academic mentor. Thanks also to Professor Gavin Jack and Dr Susan Mayson for your support. Also, much appreciation to the three reviewers and Professor Sara Louise Muhr (Section Editor) for thoughtful engagement with my work and support throughout the process.

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Bone, K.D. Cruel Optimism and Precarious Employment: The Crisis Ordinariness of Academic Work. J Bus Ethics 174, 275–290 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04605-2

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Keywords

  • Australia
  • Cruel optimism
  • Higher education
  • Identity
  • Neoliberal
  • Precarious employment
  • Qualitative