I used to think I knew what hard work was. Having spent the last thirty years as a market gardener I’ve ended many a day exhausted on the sofa, wrapped in that peculiarly masochistic form of self satisfaction. Of all human attributes, those qualities we value in others and in ourselves, being hard working is almost universally regarded up there with the greatest. Whatever an individual might not be, being seen as a hard worker is a considerable mitigation. In todays Britain, David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s Britain at least, hard work translates as being in full time employment. They’ve painted themselves as the champions of ‘hard working families’ (HWF’s), and make easy comparisons and implied moral distinctions. Anyone sound in mind and body, yet reliant on welfare, is seen at best as morally suspect or more often fraudulent.
The meritocratic philosophy we share pre-supposes that hard work will ultimately yield material success. We lionise and be-knight the Alan Sugars and the Richard Bransons, perceived as they are to be paragons of enterprise. Walking talking evidence that hard work pays. And why should we begrudge? They’ve worked hard for what they have, haven’t they? This sentiment is not confined to these Islands. What’s the American dream if not a belief that anyone can ‘make it’ if they work hard enough?
Until now this aspirational mindset has served humanity well. The dignity of labour, although a bit of an archaic concept, along with its doctrinal sibling, the protestant work ethic, has been variously used and abused by those who employ to persuade the labour force that a decent wage isn’t all there is to be gained from keeping their noses to the grindstone and their shoulders to the wheel. Apart from the contortions needed to perform both functions, the idea that gainful employment and moral rectitude are inseparable is one we’ve bought into for generations. It means that cleaning toilets is as worthy as brain surgery despite the pay gap.
The net result of all this is that full employment is universally regarded as a high water mark. A measure of economic good health, like a dogs bright eyes and glossy coat. But the full employment paradigm has a fatal flaw. Productivity.
Maths isn’t my strong suit so if I can’t make the following add up then I apologise.
Simplistically you can look at employment and production as an equation. On the one side is labour, those available to produce stuff, plus the means of producing that stuff. Lets call it the toolbox. On the other side is the stuff they produce. Historically the demand for stuff has increased along with humanity, so much so that we’ve added all kinds of tools to the box so less people can produce more stuff faster. Increased productivity.
So far so good? Well no. Of course capitalism isn’t that simple. The big complicating factor, the thing that keeps the whole system flying, is the profit motive. Employing people costs money so if you can produce the same amount of stuff with less people you’ll make more profit. In manufacturing this has meant increasing automation with similar mechanisation occurring in other areas of production such as farming, retail and all things clerical.
So on the one hand we want people to be employed and work hard whilst on the other we’re doing everything we can to render them unnecessary.
Much has been made by the present government of the need for economic growth whilst raising productivity. So how, with a growing population, do you square increasing employment with increasing productivity?
Free enterprise has unarguably been the single biggest factor in alleviating global poverty but the economic cake it produces is running out of ingredients, the very ingredients it needs to feed an increasing number of mouths. Whilst apologising for mixing my metaphors, the playing field of equality needs levelling . Capitalism will have to come down to earth and whether that descent results in a crash or a soft landing is an issue we can no longer avoid.
There is of course dignity in labour, but penalising those whose daily activity doesn’t fit the equation will condemn countless millions to poverty-level living standards and a civilisation teetering on the brink of collapse. We all need to be included and feel that the warmth of that inclusion. Attention HWF’s! Attention all you budding Lord Sugars! A time may come when you may be required to share the workload along with its rewards. How do you feel about that?