Working isn't working


So many of us are in the wrong jobs; maybe including me…

Yesterday morning I met with an RSA Fellow who has been working as a job advisor for Job Centre Plus. He told me how he has grown to hate the harshness of the regime of which he has been a part. JCP is a public service but rather than offering the most effective help to the unemployed (which would be expensive), the idea of service seems to be increasingly about responding to public antipathy to claimants and Whitehall pressure to save money.

The regime is explicitly designed to catch out claimants either for working on the side or for not trying hard enough to get employment. There is a deeply held public assumption that the welfare benefit regime is soft on claimants, but in 2011 over half a million sanctions were handed out and that figure appears to be rising (we will know more on November 6th when the next data set is published by DWP). Other recent changes include calling claimants in for appointments at very short notice and sanctioning them if they fail to turn up on the grounds that they should be ready at all times to take work.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the growth of sanctioning is not the sheer numbers but the idea of so many rank and file public servants and employees of Work Programme providers being incentivised to punish their fellow citizens by docking their already meagre benefit entitlement. For those who entered the employment service with a vocation to help the disadvantaged to now find themselves called upon increasingly to be the administrators of punishment must surely be brutalising.

Yet, of course, there is another side to the argument: One which can be read every day in the mainstream media and heard a hundred times a day on radio phone-ins. How much sympathy would those who miss appointments, fail to take up job opportunities or object to unpaid work placements get from the millions of low paid workers slogging their guts out in menial jobs from which they take home just a few pounds a week more than being on benefits?

It is not just night shift security guards, office cleaners or chicken pluckers whose day to day existence might make them intolerant of those on benefits. As this powerful piece from the LSE's David Graeber argues, millions more people are in 'nonsense jobs' which seem to lack any intrinsic value to either themselves or wider society  Perhaps it is not surprising that fewer than one in three employees say they feel actively engaged in their workplace.

Also, I have previously argued, a big question hangs over one of the fastest growing sectors of employment - care. The commodification of care has liberated many people, most of them women, but it has also led to a situation in which millions of moderately well paid people pay millions of generally badly paid people to provide care to their loved ones as strangers. Yet, generally speaking care is more warmly received and more thoughtfully and effectively provided in the context of familial affection (see Stephen T Asma in the RSA Summer Journal).

So, quite a mess: millions unemployed or under-employed, more and more of whom are treated like semi-criminals; millions in menial low paid insecure jobs; millions more in better paid but pointless activities; yet millions of others providing at best adequate care to strangers while the rest of us wish we had more time off work to spend with our loved ones.  Suddenly, the New Economics Foundation's campaign for a twenty one hour week seems more than pie in the sky.

Russell Brand found himself accused of celestial baking by Jeremy Paxman in an interview that has provoked widespread fascination. Brand’s vivid critique of the world as it is and advocacy of revolution is seen – just as he and his commissioners at the New Statesman foresaw - as a breath of fresh air contrasting with the stale rankness of Westminster pinhead adversarialism.

An important and astute critical strand in Brand’s NS essay focusses on the self-righteous, self-referential nature of much left of centre politics. He is on to something here, but arguably in his refusal to engage with conventional politics Brand also exemplifies another failing of radicalism; the tendency to split off radical social critique and idealism from practical politics and policy making.

There are many reasons for the divide between revolutionary idealism and incremental practicality. But one is aesthetic. As former New York mayor Mario Cuomo said ‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose’ (surely Barak Obama has this quote somewhere in the Oval Office).

Which brings me on to my annual lecture: the focus is work and I want to open with some Brandian fire (although sadly I lack both his looks and capacity for iconoclastic eloquence), but I also want to make a practical suggestion for progress in modern employment practice. It is, I suspect, a proposal radicals will find puny and managerialists will find unnecessary. To have a hope of impact my modest idea needs all the support it can get, but even if it were brilliant and even if it might have the potential to make a significant difference, the sad truth is that policy proposals are never as compelling as the poetry of denunciation and utopianism.

Way back when, I got into politics and social policy because I wanted to change the world. Notwithstanding my profound lack of talent perhaps I should have chosen showbiz instead?

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