The work thing

There's more to life than making a living. So why is the government so obsessed with work?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

‘You lot today – it’s all work, work, work!’ cackles the old lady on the well-aired UK TV ad for workthing.com. Who’s she talking to – the new New Labour government?

If 1997 was the election of ‘education, education, education’, 2001 pushed the mantra ‘work, work, work’. Throughout the election campaign, Blair and co eulogised the wonders of the work ethic – the way work gives you dignity; the need to promote the business culture through education; the wonders of the New Deal youth unemployment scheme; the exciting possibilities opened up to mothers through measures designed to ease their return to work.

And no sooner had the result come through than Blair put his money where his mouth was, with the creation of a new government department – the Ministry for Work and Pensions – that replaces the Department for Social Security, and is headed up by former social security secretary Alistair Darling. The symbolism is clear. So far as the government is concerned, work is the new welfare, and a lot more besides.

That a government is concerned about unemployment is not new. But the reason why New Labour is obsessed with work today, and the form this obsession takes, is in marked contrast to the past. In so far as Labour governments made a big deal out of work in the past, this was more to do with stepping in, with the welfare state, when the market failed to provide employment for all. As Labour’s big idea, the welfare state succeeded – at least at the level of giving the state and its institutions additional solidity and legitimacy. By contrast, the promotion of work by today’s government seems to eschew the role of the state so completely that you might wonder why they bother.

The New Labour government’s interest and involvement in the character, institutions and ethos of work was never a big idea; and its motivations were more grubby and pragmatic than those behind the creation of the welfare state. As the insecure new government of 1997 looked out upon what it saw as a fragmented society, disengaged from political institutions and wary of the authorities, it searched for something that brought people together and held them together. And the best it could come up with was work.

The beauty of work is that everybody does it; and because they have to do it, nobody really questions it. If people have nothing else in common that they are committed to, they have to work. As far as this fragmented society had any social glue left to hold it together, work looked like the stickiest thing going. And the government stormed in with the clear intention of attaching as many people to the work ethic as possible.

So we had the New Deal for the young unemployed – a ‘six months and you’re out’ approach to unemployment benefit that Thatcher would have been proud of. But for New Labour, the New Deal was about far more than the hamfisted cost-cutting that underlay previous ‘workfare’ schemes in the UK.

After six months, dole claimants under the age of 25 would lose their benefits unless they a) took a place in subsidised employment; b) entered full-time education; c) did voluntary work; or d) filled a place on the sinisterly-named Environment Task Force. All of the four ‘options’ were quite clearly posed, not as an end in themselves, but as a means to acquiring the skills and CV points necessary to get a job, any job – on the grounds that any job is better than nothing.

And credit where it’s due: the message of the New Deal – that it wasn’t the cost of unemployment that bothered the government, but the impact of idleness upon young people’s self-esteem – came through. Over the election, the government boasted of this scheme as one of its main successes, and nobody even mentioned its somewhat draconian character, or that youth unemployment was not a significant problem even before the New Deal. The notion that it was A Good Thing for the government to get young people into work – whoever the young people, and whatever the job – had been accepted across the board.

Hot on the heels of the New Deal for the young unemployed came the New Deal for the over-25s, the New Deal for the over-50s, the New Deal for lone parents, the New Deal for disabled people. All of these schemes were promoted, not out of a desire to reduce the financial burden of unemployment upon the welfare state, but as a way of incorporating those people the government viewed as somehow ‘socially excluded’.

In this sense, the ideology behind the welfare state had come full circle. The welfare state was posed as a solution to the limitations of society in providing work for all; by 1998, the New Deal posed work as a solution to the problems created by welfare. As long as people were visibly involved in something, it seemed, the government could sleep a little easier at night.

In its own terms the New Deal, and the positive promotion of work that this involved, was a success. Nobody is actively in favour of unemployment; the problems facing older people, lone parents and disabled people wishing to get a job have been a concern for years. But this work-first ideology also contains some deep-seated problems, that may come to the fore in New Labour’s second term.

It is true that everybody has to work – but that is not the same as saying that everybody likes their work. In fact, the extent to which the government bangs on about the spiritual, social, dignity-restoring benefits of work sits somewhat uncomfortably with a culture in which work is often derided. Everything from adverts to holiday companies that stress how depressing and irrelevant work is, to the actual popularity of twenty-somethings taking months on end to travel the world, indicates that most people do not view work as their spiritual Mecca.

Work is increasingly described as too stressful and too inflexible, with hours too long and holidays too short. While many mothers welcome their ability to work, there is a growing market in research showing how, actually, some of them would prefer to work part-time, or less time, or not at all. Within the workplace, the tensions between colleagues often appear to be intensifying, as people bring cases to industrial tribunals complaining about their workmates’ unpleasant behaviour – exemplified in some of the recent high-profile cases of sex discrimination or bullying.

Work itself does not, cannot, create any sense of community or solidarity when that is lacking elsewhere. People’s experience at work might soothe the tensions that exist in other aspects of their lives, or it might exacerbate them – but whatever else, it reflects these tensions. Work brings people together physically – but in a climate when the notion of ‘work’ sometimes seems to emanate such negative vibes, how far can it satisfy people, or bring them closer together?

A further danger with the government’s promotion of work as all individuals’ best end-goal, is the corrosive effect this has on other aspects of public life. For example, for some years the importance of higher education has been promoted to UK students not as something of value in its own terms, but on the basis that it helps you get a better job. Now, as secondary schools look set to promote the ‘enterprise culture’ throughout everything they do, and the Department for Education and Employment is re-named the Department for Education and Skills, education for young children is set to be redefined further as the teaching of work-related skills.

The aim of education used to be getting people to understand the world. In that sense, education for its own sake, without an obvious, instrumental purpose, is a good thing. From now, though, this will be subsumed by the more practical goal of just getting young people to make their living in the world – as though it is work that is good, for its own sake. Yet the dotcom creatives who supposedly see work as play, or the ambitious executives who claim to live for their work, are a tiny minority – if, indeed, they actually exist. For most people, work is, and will continue to be, a means to an end – a means to get money to do something more fulfilling, relaxing, enjoyable, personal.

And in the subsumption of other aspects of social life and culture to the priorities of work, what gets lost? There is a whole world out there, a whole intellectual, political and social world, that has nothing to do with work. Wouldn’t a government keen to see greater social engagement do better to open up this world, rather than closing it down through a blinkered obsession with promoting work as an end in itself?

Shouldn’t a government that calls itself ambitious recognise that there is more to life than making a living? And shouldn’t it be able to work some of these problems out for itself?

Read on:

A manifest lack of vision, by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics