There are few expressions that annoy me more than ‘hard working people’ – and few that we hear more in the current political climate. There are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to start…
What is ‘work’?
That the first question for me. What is ‘work’? What does it mean to work ‘hard’? Is paid work the only work that counts – because that’s the way that it often sounds. Certainly the implication is that housework, caring for kids, caring for relatives, for older people, for people who are sick or disabled, doesn’t ‘count’ – and yet for anyone who’s ever done much of that (and I doubt that many of the people who roll out the trite expression ‘hardworking people’ have ever experienced much of this) it’s every bit as ‘hard’ as any kind of paid work, every bit as stressful, every bit as ‘valuable’ as what is normally considered ‘work’. I’ve had times being a full-time father, and frankly that was far, far tougher in almost every way than any of my conventional work, whether it was in the private, voluntary or public sector (and I’ve worked in all three).
What is ‘hard’?
And then what do we mean by ‘hard’? Are we talking about the number of hours that people put in? How much physical effort they put in? How ‘productive’ they are (whatever ‘productive’ means)? What level of ‘commitment’ they put in? How much money they ‘earn’? How ‘serious’ they are when they work? If you enjoy yourself, if you chat with your workmates, if you relax while you work, does that mean you’re less ‘hard-working’?
Almost all of those ideas have deep flaws. Many, many people work too many hours – whether by choice or not. Too many hours for their health, too many hours for their happiness, too many hours for their families, too many hours for their workmates – because stress, tension and unhappiness are infectious and damaging for everyone. Different jobs require different levels of physical effort – and different kinds of jobs require different kinds of commitment. For a great many jobs, it would be much better if people were more relaxed and happy – and took more breaks, had more fun and so on.
What about people who don’t work?
The thing that annoys me the most is the implication that people who don’t ‘work’ are somehow less ‘valuable’ or less ‘virtuous’ than those who do ‘work’ – and hence less ‘deserving’ than those who do. That is not just wrong, it’s vicious, divisive and thoroughly nasty. Many of those who don’t ‘work’ have no choice about it. Some can’t work because of their health, because of their physical capabilities, because of their family situation – and many would love to work but have no chance to work for reasons completely out of their control. For some people with disabilities or suffering from sickness, it’s incredibly hard work just to stay alive – tasks that might appear simple to those who have no experience of sickness or disability, like getting dressed, preparing food, even getting out of bed, involve huge effort and pain: and yet this kind of ‘work’ seems barely to be considered at all. The idea that older people, people with disabilities, people who care for their families are somehow less virtuous and less valuable than those who follow the ‘traditional’ work path is frankly hideous.
Hard working families….
Worst of all, for me, is the idea of ‘hardworking families’. Whenever I hear it trotted out the idea that comes to me is of small children being sent up chimneys. I may work – I’m lucky that I have a job I like – but I don’t want my daughter to work! Hard-working families? No thank you. I want a happy family, a family that has fun, that is able to enjoy life, that isn’t overwhelmed by stress or tension.
It’s all linked together. We seem to have an obsession with ‘work’, to the exclusion of everything else. It excludes humanity – treating people as though they’re nothing but cogs in some great economic machine. We treat education as though the only point is to prepare children to become workers. We treat adults as though their only function is to become productive ‘economic units’ – helping GB plc to compete in some kind of hideous ‘global race’. Precisely what the ‘prize’ for ‘winning’ that global race might be – and how it could possibly be worth the dehumanisation that the obsession with ‘hard work’ produces – remains unclear. What we see around the world makes me think that I’d much rather we didn’t win that global race. I’d rather we didn’t compete at all.
Life should be about much more than that. I’d rather people were happy than worked hard – and society would benefit more, as far as I’m concerned. So every time I hear the words ‘hard-working people’, or even ‘hard-working families’, I’ll offer up a silent scream. I’ll probably hear them hundreds of times during the Conservative Party Conference – indeed, it’s part of the main slogan of the conference – but I heard them far too many times even at the Labour Party Conference. I wish we could stop thinking in those terms – but I fear we won’t for a long time, if ever.