As part of our major recruitment campaign, ingés d'avenir, we are launching a series of portraits of engineers who are branching out, who have doubts, and of all those involved in reorienting engineers towards meaningful careers. With this in mind, we met Olivier Lefebvre, author of "Lettre aux Ingénieurs qui doutent".
"There are currently more than 800,000 engineers in French society... If some of them feel uneasy and want to stop doing harm and put their skills at the service of logics other than those of the extension of capitalism, we urgently need to help them take the plunge." writes Olivier Lefebvre.
Author of Lettre aux ingénieurs qui doutent,Olivier is a former engineer who deserted the profession. After leaving the profession, he set out to understand why so few engineers change their career path, despite the cognitive dissonance and the feeling of working in a job that's not going in the right direction. In addition to his analysis, which he discusses in his book, he talked to us about his own obstacles, the factors that led him to change direction, and the solutions he found at his own level to help him do so.
The difficulty of breaking out of the gilded cage.
"How come there aren't more engineers deserting, knowing that there are many of us - and I was one of them - who are aware that our job isn't going in the right direction, and what's more, that it's making us suffer?"
In his analysis, Olivier explains that one of the reasons why engineers don't change is this difficulty in "breaking out of the gilded cage". Stepping out of it would mean mourning the loss of an identity forged in connection with this cage, which implies a certain degree of submission to the established order. Breaking out of this way of thinking about work and the existence that goes with it therefore provokes a wrench. In recent years, this identity wrench may have been amplified by certain factors, such as the proliferation of techno-solutionist discourse and greenwashing, which tend to"degrade the narrative that engineers tell themselves to legitimize their activity."
When the exit door becomes visible.
For Olivier, the choice of whether or not to leave came when he reached a point of no return, and suffered a breakdown: "I had to change some deep-rooted things in my work." His cognitive dissonance - that state we're in when confronted with information that's out of sync with our reality or behavior - was strongly felt. This dissonance, to which he was resigned, was in fact present in him long before his studies."I was an agent of capitalism, and I knew that if I chose to work as an engineer, my role would either be to increase productivity (to produce more for less), or to manufacture objects or services that people don't really need, but which they'd be willing to buy if we told them it was good for them and very useful." To be an engineer for that system was therefore, for him, to accept a certain form of cognitive dissonance. Dissonance, which he "resigned himself to feeling", until depression led him to have no choice but to listen to his affects: "I accepted to stop resigning myself and draw all the consequences" he says.
An ideal of life to question.
Olivier then asks himself several questions to move forward: "What relationship do I have with work? What kind of work do I do? What training should I do? What do I want to learn?" If he's changing jobs, there are also habits and a life ideal to question. For him, for example, the social status of the engineer, didn't really matter: "Being an engineer for me wasn't something to dream about. The figure of the researcher and scientist could have fed strong imaginations in me, but that of the engineer, no." On the other hand, the question of material comfort and a life of leisure, he enjoyed for years and it formed his identity: "I felt like being myself when I went hiking at weekends in the mountains, and the rest of the time, you had to play the game. I was imbued with this way of seeing things and operating." At the time of his depression, he then reshuffled the cards:"I knew I had to really change my relationship to work, and I felt I had to leave engineering."
Connect and don't be alone in your transition.
One of Olivier's first actions was to seek out people"who were trying to align the purpose of their work with a political purpose, and who saw their work as a means of political expression". They then met and interviewed people, to find out how they, themselves, had lived through their bifurcation. "The fact of not staying alone with your dissonance and finding other people who think the same way, creating communities, for me, that was an important factor. And it came to legitimize critical thinking, which seemed incongruous in my work." He meets these people via seminars he attends, such as those at the ATtelier d'ECOlogie POLitique for example. Moreover, following his decision to leave his job, his circles of relations have gradually evolved. These changes, he experiences joyfully and enthusiastically, because in the lot, "there were quite a few relationships of habit or constrained by work" he says. For him, the reappropriation of his work goes hand in hand with this relational and friendly reappropriation. "I appreciate the relationships I've created by changing fields. They're often committed people, so there's an ethical dimension that's present and that's very interesting and pleasant."
Listen to your emotions. Take action.
Writing this book "Lettre aux ingénieurs qui doutent" stems from a dual intention for Olivier: on the one hand, "to make the gilded cage of engineers less comfortable, by accentuating the cognitive dissonance and stories they tell themselves when they tell themselves that their work isn't so bad"and on the other hand "to make one outside the cage desirable, by showing the other forms of life possible, where the difference between work and leisure is less marked, where incomes can be lower without making us poor, and where other professions are possible, in crafts or low techs for example." Saccording to him, to get out of dissonance and take action, it's important to develop our sensitivity and remove the barriers to affect that we often put up for ourselves. For Olivier, we could start by looking at what's important in our lives, and let that reason loud enough for us to say to ourselves: "ok, I have to do this, and it's no longer possible to pretend."
For engineers who want to branch out.
The question engineers in search of meaning often ask Olivier is "What could I do?" In his book, Letter to Doubting Engineers, Olivier invites his readers to "take a step aside from their everyday lives". "Taking part in a participatory worksite" or "signing up for training in a field you've always dreamed of experimenting with"are examples he gives of how to explore other ways of living. As he puts it, sensible experiences are moreover "more transformative than reading a book." In fact, he and a number of colleagues have set up a vocational training course called La bifurque, in Toulouse, aimed at engineering profiles, working in industry. "The aim is not just to turn to craftsmanship, but to think about other career paths in which these people can make themselves useful thanks to their skills, without falling into the traps of greenwashing in their job search." The training also aims to address these issues of blocked imaginations, which hold back the engineer from stepping "off the rail that guides existence into the gilded cage". The first edition of this training course will be in March 2024.
After the fork in the road.
Olivier makes it clear that when he talks about fork in the road, he's not "here to talk about happiness." In fact, he believes that you can fork in the road and still be unhappy. For him, it's not a question of happiness, it's a question of freedom. "I don't feel particularly happier following my fork in the road. Not everything is perfect." On the other hand, what he gains is the feeling of being"less in dissonance and having the opportunity to question whether or not to do certain things", something he didn't have the freedom to be able to do before. He also experiences this alignment and feeling of no longer lying to himself: "I no longer spend my time telling myself stories, I feel freer".
4 engineering groups you can join if you're lost
Olivier cites 4 collectives for engineers who have doubts and would like to connect to branch out:
- Ingénieurs sans frontières, an international solidarity initiative from the engineering community.
- Ingénieur.es Engagé.es, a federation rethinking the place of the engineer in society
- You are not alone, an association aiming to help whistleblowers.
- Les désert' heureuses, a collective of people who have, for the most part, deserted engineering and are moving towards alternative lifestyles.
The structures and sectors that inspire it
- L'atelier Paysan, a cooperative society in the ESS and Low Tech sectors.
- And the sector of intermediate vehicles between the bicycle and the car;
👉 The job offers in low tech.