Knowledge workers: when your life becomes your job

It is the profession of our time, around which not only social relations but also cities and the concept of time itself are being reorganised. “How will we work?” is one of the questions addressed by the next domusforum, which will take place on 24 November.

“People did drugs to check out, and now people do drugs to check in”, says Neurology Professor Anjan Chatterejee in the documentary Take Your Pills, referring to Adderall and other stimulants used by students and professionals. Similarly, we could also say that people used to go to parties to get away from work, and now they go to parties to consolidate professional contacts, find new ones and increase their social capital - in short, to show that they are part of the clique, or at least to try to join it.

This is one of the self-inflicted sentences of the so-called knowledge workers who live in the gentrified neighbourhoods of the big cities - like the Isola district in Milan, Soho in London and New York, Williamsburg, Shoreditch…- and who often seem to be living in a sort of endless video game: once they have conquered one social level, they have no choice but to fight their way up to the next one, in a constant social climb that is made up more of vernissages and aperitifs than of deceit and backstabbing, but is just as exhausting.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

However, before delving deeper into the subject, it is necessary to clarify something. Who are these knowledge workers? “They are workers who produce significant added value through their knowledge and intellectual skills,” explains Marianna D’Ovidio, Urban Sociology professor at the Bicocca University in Milan. Contrary to what is commonly thought, this definition does not only concern those who work in the cultural or creative sectors: “In the past, we used to talk about knowledge, cultural and creative workers in order to better contextualise and make it clear that this macro-category also includes, for example, doctors or lawyers”.

Besides the labels, it is not easy to find a common thread that connects doctors, financial experts, artists and marketing gurus: they certainly do not share the same interests, they do not earn the same salary, they do not have the same political opinions and they do not go to the same parties. What else holds them together, apart from the fact that they “use knowledge in their workplace” (according to the 1959 definition by the economist Peter Drucker)? What if what brings these professionals together is the fact that they have removed any barrier between social and professional life, creating a combination where people go to parties for work, and work on holidays?

“It’s not a strict definition, but in real life it’s often like this,” says D’Ovidio. “When I was carrying out a research project in the fashion sector, at least two people told me how, when they take sabbaticals, they no longer need to go to parties”. In this paradox, the use of the word ’need’ is particularly striking. Going to parties is a necessity that one does easily without as soon as it is no longer necessary to attend parties for only professional purposes. And it is only during these sabbatical leaves that one can also do without the city, which for knowledge workers becomes a social infrastructure capable of hosting and bringing together the network of reference, with events, presentations, openings and all that Andy Warhol’s New York City kind of imagery.

Picture by Kevin Chinchilla on Unsplash

“All knowledge workers basically draw the same resources from the city,” continues D’Ovidio. “For financial experts and interior designers, what has sometimes been called the city’s sentiment is just as important, and can be absorbed even if you simply enjoy an aperitif with your colleagues in the bar you normally hang out in. The most important thing, probably, is to understand how the role of the city has changed over time: first, because of the possibility of managing and maintaining one’s personal network also online, and then, as a result of the forced increase of remote working, which - as has now been demonstrated - has displaced (temporarily?) a huge number of knowledge workers, who are probably convinced that they can maintain their contacts even at a distance.

“As it has been said, until the Covid pandemic, the role of cities was to bring together professionals committed to gaining and maintaining their reputation,” continues Marianna D’Ovidio, who in 2019 published a study on these topics with Alessandro Gandini. “Being seen in the right place while talking to the right people helps you to gain a certain reputation, which becomes a crucial element to seize the opportunities that may arise. If you move away from the cities, perhaps because of the pandemic, you can still maintain, via social media or other means, the contacts you have already made, but it is much more difficult to build new ones. Above all, those who do not yet have their own network, find themselves cut off. In any case, the capital of relationships you already have can be used up very quickly: these systems travel very fast, and the risk of missing the opportunities is just behind the corner”.

This is also what leads to the rise of certain neighbourhoods, which are densely populated by creative workers and the like. These densely populated areas facilitate the creation of networks, making it possible to immerse oneself in the environment that one needs to cultivate. It is the famous ‘bubble’: this overused term is however useful to indicate a circle that satisfies all socio-cultural needs and is almost immune to external influences. This phenomenon is also apparent in real life, but is even more evident on social media, where social capital and reputation can also be acquired through one’s contacts. Being followed on Twitter or Instagram by the right people can be the signal that opens other doors, in the form of commissions or other potentially useful contacts.

“So, ‘tell me who your followers are and I will tell you who you are”. There is a risk, however, that this qualitative element may simply become quantitative. In the age of social media, knowledge workers - and especially creative workers - risk being judged based on the number of followers. And if they don’t have many, works for which social distribution is also important - as is the case for articles or books, for example - may not be commissioned or accepted, which in turn precludes the possibility of increasing the followers. Is this like a dog chasing its own tail?

Picture by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

“Only partly,” D’Ovidio replies. “It is undeniable that having good metrics is important for a certain group of knowledge workers. In my case, being a scholar, I pay close attention to my citations on Google Scholar: if they are not many, I have to do something about it, send the paper to friends, go to conferences, etc. Everyone builds their own metrics as they prefer, and even this has become a skill. However, to make a Black Mirror-style example, knowledge workers become like items sold on Amazon or restaurants on Deliveroo, whose success depends largely on scores and other forms of quantitative metrics.

But how long can this game last? A game that requires total dedication, a very long education, a relentless pursuit of a good reputation, exhausting personal branding, turning oneself into a sort of start-up while receiving often disproportionate (negative) economic treatment in return? “If we wanted to explain it using Marx words, we could say that capital tends to create high expectations in sectors in which to make people invest,” concludes Marianna D’Ovidio. “This mechanism, in recent years, has focused precisely on the cognitive or creative worker, whereas in the 1990s it mainly focused on finance workers. For some people, the necessary economic, social, and time investment will pay off, but for most it will not. The lucky ones who succeeded will continue to attract new aspiring professionals. But once you are in this game, there is a reputation to maintain. And in order to do so, people are sometimes willing to accept any conditions, pretending that everything is perfectly fine.

Opening image by Rawpixel on iStock

Check also: Domus' new section about Modern Work and its ongoing challenges
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