Originally published in The Irish Examiner
When you contribute to an enterprise course, as I have, many a time, the first thing you learn is that every third woman in this country has a dream of opening a coffee shop specialising in her family’s scones. Never mind the constant inspections seeking vermin droppings, the small margins, and the backbreaking labour; that’s the dream.
The second thing you learn is a general contempt for “lifestyle” business people — sole traders, in other words, or couples whose business supports themselves and their family and nobody else.
Enterprise courses love software developers planning to come up with a Zoom or a TikTok and sell it off to Apple or Microsoft for millions, even though the developers may not actually employ that many people during in its development.
But enterprise course-givers don’t like people who just want to employ themselves, the boyfriend, and maybe a pal two days a week.
When I first encountered this rule — because it is indubitably a rule implicit in the enterprise canon —I accepted it obediently.
Lifestyle businesses should not be entertained on enterprise courses, I parroted. They make no significant contribution to the gross national product. None of us actually said that they were parasites on the economic body, but the parasite description hovered around.
They were minutiae and we were working on the big picture. Without the multinationals and the other massive commercial bodies, they wouldn’t be able to exist at all.
We wanted to create big enterprises, huge corporations, vast businesses that could never fail. Not encourage a bunch of hopeless freelancers.
Nobody acknowledged that, while we were despising freelancers, big business was actively fostering them while hiding under an umbrella term that spread responsibility so thinly over everything that all anybody could do was shrug: That’s the gig economy for you.
The gig economy is where kids are told practically from birth that they need to be able to code.
Once they’re able to code, they can be channelled into the university courses that turn out processions of 20-somethings ready to obediently wear the uniform of t-shirt, hoodie, jeans, and trainers, ready to be vomited forth by public transport earlier than nine each morning, ready to head down, lugging a laptop in a shoulder bag to one of the big corporations regarded as cool and clever, ready to be sucked back home later than five.
”Home” being a rented house shared with too many others who are in much the same situation.
The gig economy allows all of these young people to get middle-aged but not permanent, panicky but not possessed of a mortgage, healthy but terrified of illness.
Some of them, God love them, don’t even work for the people they work for, if you get my drift.
They are bought by another company and hired out to the ostensible employer, which allows the latter not just to keep them in a state of stressful impermanence, but to avoid treating them to the benefits any decent employer would be happy to deliver to their staff. They can’t afford to take days off.
They can’t afford a rent hike. They’re fearful and frazzled and although highly educated, thanks to the State, make a doubtful GDP contribution. The smallest downturn and they’re tossed out on their ass.
The gig economy ground to a halt because of the pandemic and so thousands of the hoodie-wearing programmers are now sitting in whatever room is available in their overcrowded home, still trying to prove their value to a boss who may not be that sure who they are, bearing in mind that someone else is actually their legal employer.
Meanwhile, (and this is the positive bit) a substantial segment of the Irish workforce is back on the job, happy out — and that segment is largely made up of precisely the lifestyle workers so despised by entrepreneurial orthodoxy.
They’re the electricians, the plumbers, the painters, the mechanical engineers, the gardeners, the gutter-cleaners, and the lads who can clear your driveway of weeds.
Run off their feet and making great money, they are, right now, for a number of reasons. The first of those reasons, as one electrician told me, was because some people have money.
“A couple working from home with two kids may have ended up being paid the same but they didn’t have to pay childcare, so they’re maybe €1,600 better off per month. Multiply that by four months and they’ve saved more than they could ever have dreamed of saving in the first half of the year.”
Suddenly, re-wiring that old house becomes possible. Or sticking on a kitchen extension. Or replacing the double-glazing that’s started to mist over.
If what you’ve saved is money you might have spent on childcare, even one months-worth would have gained you a hell of a holiday, but now you’re caught in the scissors movement of public health: Go overseas for two weeks with the kids and you’re going to be shamed from all sides, plus carry the dreaded possibility of doing in a granny or two.
So you plan a staycation and see if you can get lads in to do the work while you’re gone.
The other factors driving this new business, according to the blinds guy, are time and light. People who rarely got to see their own homes in daylight have had the space to look around and realise a coat of paint wouldn’t go amiss or decide that it’s time to do something about the rising damp.
In my case, tasks postponed during lockdown became exigent.
The lift would have to be serviced or the insurance company would remove cover and then I would be killed for free when it fell off its moorings.
The strings for the blinds fell off and when I used the bottom part of the frame instead, it came away in my hands. The outside alarm lights would have to be fixed or my new neighbours would sue me for sleep deprivation.
In February, the lights designed to repel or illuminate any mad eejit who thought I had something worth stealing went on the blink. Literally, not metaphorically.
They took to high-speed stuttering on and off. Turning the stuttering light off was possible only if the rest were left shining all night.
Then the sink tap went from a drip to a steady, low-level flow.
I had to get a man. Or rather, a flow of men, curated carefully to start as soon as phase one of real-life resumption was completed.
One-at-a-time, Sweet Jesus, so we wouldn’t create a collective of coronavirus carriers breathing on me. All of them happy out to be serving customers again and doing their best to keep those customers alive, those men arriving gloved, masked, and carrying jumbo-sized containers of bacterial wipes.
Frontline heroes don’t all wear capes — or stethoscopes, either. Keeping a machine for living in going for the humans who live in it, is frontline work. Done mostly by despised lifestyle entrepreneurs. Bless ’em all.