One of my first jobs was a glamorous temping gig as an office clerk. I filed papers and ate my lunches in solitude. I knew I wouldn’t be around long, so why bother getting to know any of my co-workers? The independence was great, I thought, if ever so slightly soul-crushing.
Douglas Coupland’s latest project, TEMP, a serialized, fictional, 20-part narrative running exclusively in Metro News, illuminates the costs and benefits of our present-day employment paradigm. Coupland, the renowned Canadian author whose international bestseller Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture added the terms “Generation X” and “McJob” to our nomenclature, tells the story of Shannon, a temporary receptionist at a filter systems company that is methodically moving the company to China. “I wanted it to be very much set in the present we actually live in,” says Coupland, “with things like drones, and event contractors, and defunded elementary schools.”
“This was such an especially exciting project because it was, in a way, performance art in print,” says Charlotte Empey, Editor-in-Chief of Metro English Canada. “The installment followed our news design templates, and lived quietly on its page with little fanfare – but we peppered the sections of the paper from front to back with actual news stories about employment, temps, or plot lines – so the virtual world of TEMP was living seamlessly in the real world of Metro.”
I met with Coupland and Empey at the Metro News offices in Toronto.
SDTC: Can you tell me how the TEMP project first started and how it evolved?
Douglas Coupland: I was having a discussion with a friend about the most underappreciated things out there and we were like “Metro!” Everyone reads it, everyone talks about it, and yet no one talks about it as it. The thing about Metro as opposed to other papers is everyone reads everything. Then they put it down and someone else re-reads the paper. It’s got this amazing footprint of people who probably would enjoy something that I do.
SDTC: Did you have a temp job or an internship that inspired Shannon’s voice?
DC: I grew up in this part of Vancouver that was so remote it was essentially rural. And so jobs were always my way of escaping my family, or where I was. And I’ve had jobs are essentially temp-like, I think everyone has in our culture, at an architectural office, and that was, about 1982. 31 years ago. Oh my god! Wow.
SDTC: In the story Shannon talks about not having any medical or dental insurance but at the same she talks about the pleasure of not having to kiss anyone’s ass. Do you think there’s a certain degree of freedom that comes from being a temp?
DC: I was just meeting with Vawn, the official temp here, and we talked about the exact same thing. I go crazy in a job. It’s sort of like the difference between being a dog or being a cat. Dogs have jobs, cats get to come and go. And I think maybe sort of temping is the ultimate cat job. So, I think, there are people for whom freedom is a bigger, more important thing than stability.
SDTC: And in a recent installment, when Shannon talks to one of the Sarahs about getting used to the feeling of being disposable. Yet, a couple of installments before, the other Sarah gets fired. Do you think that this feeling of being disposable is no longer limited to temps?
DC: I don’t think any 22 year old out there, I don’t think you’re going to find one of them who’s like, “Job for life? Of course, that’s the way it works!” I was in high school and they said “Well in the future you’re going to have 5 or 6 careers.” But what I’m realizing now is that instead of having all these careers be sequential, everyone has 5 or 6 careers at once, like: Boom! You have to be a graphic designer. Boom! You have to be an editor. Boom! You have to be a writer. Boom! You probably have to do something else as a job to supplement what you’re doing, so you work at a restaurant or something. And so everyone’s day is far more partitioned than it used to be in the past. I think for one of the Sarahs to get fired would’ve been a lot more of a surprise 30 years ago than it would be today.
SDTC: Could you speculate on how we’re going to look back at the 40 hour work week 100 years from now?
DC: We’re going to look back on 3% unemployment and 40 hour workweek in horror. Like the way we look at Victorian labour laws in the 1890s and we go “Oh my god,” I think there will be that same sense of “What were they thinking?”
Charlotte Empey: I would absolutely agree. What appealed to me so much about what was going on with TEMP was, for my take, Douglas’ commentary on not just where we are but there we’re going. And I think that the notion of having a 40 hour week, getting your parking paid for, and getting your healthcare benefits will not only be a thing of the past, I think we’re in transition. I think it’s only scary because we’re not there yet. We’re leaving job security and getting to this point in the world of possibilities.
TEMP is available in Metro Newspapers worldwide, Monday to Friday, November 4th-29th, or online here.