Political leaders of every stripe talk about hard-working families as though it should be every parent’s aspiration to spend as little time as possible with their offspring. How much do we really want our noses to the grindstone? Selina Todd is the author of ‘The People. The Rise and Fall of the Working Class’ – here she reminds us that the demand should be for more leisure, not more work…
Illustration by Hannah Meese.
Fuck Your Hard Word – by Selina Todd.
Recently, I interviewed a dozen of my former classmates, now aged in their late thirties and early forties, to see how their lives differed from those of their working-class parents. Was it true that Britain was becoming classless, and people more individualised? Had this generation embraced the ‘flexibility’ apparently offered by the global labour market? Or did they yearn for a return to the certainties of a job for life?
I quickly discovered that the answer to all three of those questions is no. Superficially, my classmates appeared to have climbed the social ladder. They had to wear suits for work, not overalls, and they had fancy-sounding job titles: they were all ‘analysts’, ‘consultants’ or ‘managers’. But in reality, their lives were little different from those of their parents, most of whom had worked in the factories and shipyards of 1980s Tyneside, or (in the case of their mothers), in shops or as office cleaners. What bound them to their parents was the experience of really hard work: ‘they worked hard for us’; ‘I work very hard’ were phrases I heard repeatedly. Their supposedly middle-class lifestyles were built on credit and debt, and on the insecurity of zero-hour, or temporary, or part-time contract work. ‘Flexibility’ did not inspire them; strangely enough, most of them wanted to work close to home, and close to family and friends, and didn’t relish having to move jobs at the whim of their employers.
Perhaps more surprisingly, none of them exactly relished returning to the alleged certainties of the past. That’s the postwar past, the 1950s and 1960s, often mythologised by politicians as a time of job security, affluence and upward social mobility. In reality, Britain never experienced entirely full employment, working-class ‘affluence’ relied on the expansion of credit agreements; and only a tiny minority of people travelled from a manual working-class home into a profession. These were years when working-class people had greater bargaining power than ever before, because of demand for their labour and the progressive reforms introduced by the 1945 Labour government. But there has never been a time when capitalism existed without the exploitation of most people, most of the time.
My classmates weren’t necessarily aware of this historical detail, but they were aware that working for a living was unlikely to bring them what they want and need. They didn’t aspire to greater job security because their aspirations didn’t focus on work. They were tentative about admitting this at first. That’s understandable, in a country where politicians of all hues claim that being a member of a ‘hardworking family’ is a criterion of citizenship. Yet as my classmates slowly began to admit, most people don’t see hard work as a virtue. Their aspirations focus on getting more leisure: time to spend with family and friends, doing things they consider worthwhile. That might be childcare, but it might equally be creative or craft work. In a study of 1990s Basildon, the social scientists Alan Hudson and Dennis Hayes found that ‘Basildon man’ and woman – the supposedly arch-working-class Tories – felt disenchanted with a society that offered them meaningless work. Asked about their aspirations, most of this group of manual workers put ‘making a scientific or medical discovery that could benefit the human race’ top of their list. Similar sentiments were evoked by their children’s generation when I interviewed them. They dreamed of winning the lottery – and concurred that they’d use the money to leave work, spend more time with family, and ensure their children didn’t have to work for a living.
This is a sensible attitude. Hard work causes stress, poor health and early death – above all, it has never solved poverty. We work longer hours now than we’ve done for fifty years, yet the gap between the rich and poor has never been wider. Working hard cannot solve an economic crisis. The fact we are all expected to work so hard is in fact a result of economic crisis: a crisis that did not appear in 2008, but has been with us far longer. This is the crisis at the heart of capitalism: a tension between the 1 percent who control the economy, and want to continually increase their wealth, and the rest of us, who are expected to work ever harder, in order to generate profit and to keep us from occupying our time in meaningful ways like questioning or challenging the status quo.
Yet throughout the last century, that strategy has never been completely successful. The history of the working class is often told as a constant struggle for work. But in fact working-class people have constantly strived to reduce the amount of time and effort spent working for ‘them’. For men that meant trying to get into reserved factory work during the Second World War because fighting in 1914 had brought no benefits for ordinary people. For women, it meant leaving domestic service, which was Britain’s largest single occupation until 1939. Thousands of servants simply deserted their posts in the weeks after war was declared, in the knowledge that factories and offices would require their labour. They weren’t enamored of working on an assembly line or behind a desk; but they were aware that clerks and factory hands had regulated hours of work, basic pay rates and in some cases a holiday entitlement. Domestic servants, by contrast, were expected to work six and a half days a week for a pittance: it was by depending on such labour that the professional middle class reproduced itself in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
After the war, the real gains of the 1950s and 1960s were delivered by ordinary people themselves. The Labour victory in the 1945 General Election delivered a welfare state and near-full employment, but more interesting is how ordinary working people chose to exploit these improvements. Factory and, increasingly, office workers mobilised to improve working conditions and, importantly, reduce the amount of time they spent at work. That’s why so many of the disputes in the 1960s and 1970s were over the basic rate of pay, and who distributed overtime. If you’re paid a decent basic wage, then you don’t have to spend evenings and weekends at work, or take on evening or night shifts in order to pay for your mortgage, car or holiday.
Why, then, have people voted for the Tories, the party championing hard workers and entrepreneurialism? Precisely because the Conservatives seemed to offer an answer to many people who wanted to stop working for ‘the man’. The Tories have only ever offered individualistic solutions: home ownership or the chance to start your own business. These promises of social mobility and self preservation have always failed, because only a few can ever possess the wealth and opportunity in a capitalist country. Bankruptcies rose in the 1980s, following Margaret Thatcher’s scheme to fund business start-ups, and owner-occupiers suffered record levels of repossession in the 1990s. Today, those who ‘own’ their homes are in reality in hock to banks, burdened with huge, unsustainable debts.
Solidarity, on the other hand, has delivered important victories, and could offer a real alternative to austerity. Look at the tremendous achievements that collective struggle made over the last century: better working conditions, shorter working hours, an expanded public sector that gave us better jobs and care, democratically controlled housing and free education. The working class has declined as a collective political force, but the desire to help each other out has not – its just that its only outlet is now in worrying about children’s and grandchildren’s uncertain futures. By showing that collective effort can bring huge gains for all of us the Left could justify the redistribution of income and property, which is the only way to create a truly classless society. The political establishment scoff that this is ludicrous, but they have yet to reveal the logic behind their own incredible notion that ‘hardworking families’ can overcome the inequality perpetrated by a powerful elite determined to hang onto their privilege.
Selina Todd, a social historian, is fellow and vice principal of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She is the author of Young Women, Work, and Family in England – which won the Women’s History Network book prize – and The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010