‘Hard working people’ doesn’t work for me…

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….

victorian style chimney sweep, a child chimney sweep,  hulton piWorst 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.

69 thoughts on “‘Hard working people’ doesn’t work for me…

  1. I am in full agreement with everything you say here, the terminology is all wrong. We need to be proud of ourselves and our fellow human beings for the contribution each of us makes to life be that our lives or the lives of others.

    1. I utterly agree. For me its a meaningless as well as a divisive phrase. One persons hardworker is anothers laziness. Of coarse work it needed but currently i worry its taking over our lives to a point where we stop being human at all. The whole definition is bizarre, what about if a volunteer or carer works more hours and does more productive stuff are they still not as valuable? We are losing the ability to care for others. What if we work more and more for less and less and not only we lose family and friend relationships we also become less productive. Id say we have have come less productive, less caring and less creative and surely we need more creativity to become a better society and more wealthier. Yet they cut arts funding and dont encourage artistic and creative people – hardly clever is it! It is feeding an every increasingly consumption we dont need – surely we need more creativity and better stuff of better quality not more stuff.

    2. Another point is work is only part of life and to live fulfilling happy lives it should be part of life not the obsession it has become. Another issue is that employers have used this virtue as a tool to gain more profit especially large companies, and forgotten about their loyalty to workers and their duty to uphold good practices. All other work not paid is devalued. Most people want to be productive and do something useful, if they don’t they know they suffer mental issues, social isolation, working often has social, mental and physical benefits, but to work constantly and especially without proper reward (which no longer seems important and by reward it can mean respect, being valued and treated well not simply money) people feel just as bad in work. I watched a programme where delivery workers said they threw items around as their employers didn’t value them which said it all. Imbalance in life of any sort is bad. I watched another programme looking back at the decades saying 3 day a week people spent more time with family was so important as they are so stressed now and barely see each other. Work is fine but within a place and certain time. I too hate the words economy it seems to suggest we are all overworking for the sake of it to worship a god called the economy question is what has the economy done for us? They really mean big shareholders to get richer. The bad thing is people questioning the way of thinking and system get labelled lazy. Working Class People will work do what’s necessary to get jobs done but nothing more, they have had centuries of working hard for no reason and for no benefit. Work also has to change its meaning from simply paid work to what is should mean, which is things that need doing regardless of monetary attachment, i’d say carers like me work more harder than most paid folk, more hours, but with less recognition and value in society which we deserve, so should parents, volunteers, etc, even self employed and casual workers aren’t valued all people should be given proper value but also live balanced lives.

  2. Hard work is not inherently virtuous. This was one of the most profound insights of St Benedict and inspired his monastic Rule. Work is necessary, yes, but needs to be allocated its proper, subordinate, place in the order of things. His Rule has stood the test of time, (1,500 years and counting). Of course if you’re not religious you won’t pray but you might substitute quiet reflection, enjoyment of art, or even the simple pleasures of conversation.

  3. It frightens me , the way you express my thoughts so frequently and so accurately .
    I wish at least some of our MPS had as much common sense .
    Sent from my BlackBerry smartphone from Virgin Media

  4. Absolutely agree. In addition, the ‘hard-working families’ trope is not at all helpful for people not living in a family (hard-working or not, whatever hard-working means, as you point out). It’s all so exclusionary – you’re ‘in’ if you meet x woolly criteria and ‘out’ if you don’t. It’s the same philosophy behind the proposed married persons’ tax break, the bedroom tax, and all the rest of them. It makes me so cross.

  5. Yep. Do you think you could write about another pet hate of mine. Commentators who use “the economy”. It’s good for “the economy”. “The economy” will suffer. 99 times out of a hundred they mean “the vested interest I’m now supporting”, the “sector of business I’m now supporting”, “my views about how other people should be hardworking”. I hate the phrase “the economy”. 99/100 it’s simply lazy and stupid and thoughtless use of a powerful meme that suppresses those less well off.

  6. Not to mention the assumption that all those that have a job work hard, or that it is an automatic good. Some of the bankers may have worked hard; IDS and his ilk may regard what they do as hard work; arms manufactuers, those who sold the ingredients of Sarin gas, tobacco companies, advertising men. Larkin’s question “Why should I let the toad Work/squat upon my life?” comes to mind. As far as I remember, his answer was that it was a failure of imagination and nerve that led to the valorisation of effort for the sake of pointless effort. I am a carer, and I certainly work and I think that what I do has value.

    Few people want to be idle.

    1. IDS and his ilk may regard what they do as “hard work”, but it shows little sign of any significant mental effort. As for his comment about knowing “families where no-one has worked for three generations” – he probably met them at school, or in the House of Lords.

    2. totally agree, hard work is hard to measure and now apparently Britain is less productive despite all this hard work. Carers aren’t valued and respected and seen as taking tax payers money, don’t they also realise carers spent money in the economy and contribute in none monetary ways to communities. The disabled aren’t valued neither are the mentally ill, plus the fact they don’t fit the mould of what ‘society’ wants them to be so end up not working and so aren’t valued despite the fact most want to work in some form as they know it benefits them socially. IDS and the ilk has the idea all just want to take money for no effort when in reality, IDS etc overly value money and not people and so don’t realise what they are saying is so morally wrong.

  7. I think you may have missed the point a bit here. If you’re talking about what politicians mean, “hard-working people” does indeed include parents, carers, volunteers, etc. Correct for this and a huge part of your objection falls out. Take government policy: the married couples tax break is all about supporting stay-at-home parents; respite breaks for carers shows that their effort is recognised also.

    “Hard work” is incredibly personal and subjective. I know when I’ve spent my time well, either working, enjoying myself, or relaxing. There are also plenty of occasions when I’ve wasted whole days, achieving little. I wish I could describe myself as a hard-working person. Perhaps if I worked a little harder, other people wouldn’t have to.

    1. I would very much like you to be right on that first point – but I’m afraid that if you listen more carefully to how the term is used, and add into it the attitudes to people with disabilities shown by the same speakers again and again and again, and the pattern should become clear. Sadly so.

      1. I agree it assumes as disabled people and the mentally ill have conditions they cannot work – not true most want to work and can work, the problems being in work itself which is now a multitasking culture – people do the jobs of often 3/4 people which is one of the reasons Britain is unproductive, loads of people doing too much and many not doing anything at all, not their fault but how works and jobs are created, and those who can do aspects of these jobs the mentally ill and disabled excluded from the jobs market. The idea people are simply lazy, is in itself a lazy assumption. It depends on access to employment, where jobs are located, how people get work and what they have to do etc. Employers have rejected people on a number of extremely picky reasons including the wrong look, slight lack of experience or odd behaviour, which rejects people who very possibly can do the actual job with a bit of training. There unwillingness to train or get to know people can lead to good people unemployed which doesn’t benefit the economy. A good article on this regarded employers in the U.S. being so picky and having such high expectations, they expect people to start jobs straight away with no training, very unrealistic. The term hard working does imply some people work harder than others, and I don’t see any connection between this and productivity which the U.K. now lags in despite employers wanting ‘committed hard working people’. How hard do people have to work to actually get jobs done properly and efficiently? It implies only those who work are valuable and those not in paid work aren’t and I’ve seen enough programmes where even people doing voluntary were looked down on by those in full paid positions as those full time paid positions were more valuable, as though money is the only valuable thing in society. Maybe that hard working full time paid person doesn’t work hard – that’s a thought!

    2. Oh, and if you really believe that the married couples tax break is intended to support stay-at-home parent I’m afraid you’re really falling for propaganda on a major scale!

      1. The ‘benefit’ attaches to the ‘worker’, not the ‘non-worker’, reinforcing the division, not the opposite. And as far as disability is concerned, the very nature of the rhetoric is inherently damaging – it automatically excludes and demeans people who can’t work, or have limited working options.

      2. I don’t think a couple would feel divided by a shared tax allowance, quite the opposite: it unites them. It acknowledges that two workers (even if only one is employed) have a shared income and therefore should be allowed a shared tax-free allowance.

        I think you are struggling with the difference between “working” and “employment”.

        On the subject of disability, I have not heard the rhetoric of which you speak, so I cannot comment.

      3. You need to listen to the rhetoric a lot more carefully – and ask yourself why this particular blog post has proven very popular with many disabled activists. Lots of tweets, RTs and so forth ….

        …and no, I’m not struggling at all. Quite the opposite. You need to learn the difference between precise, technical meaning and intention, subtext and implication. The word ‘work’ means many things: the implications of the agenda, of the rhetoric, of the propaganda are quite another.

      4. On the subject of disability, I’m not questioning the validity of what you say; I am merely declaring my ignorance as this is not something I have heard discussed recently. I will listen out.

        I know plenty about subtext and implication, but also inference: interpretation can be distorted by the prejudices of the listener as much as the speaker… of course some politicians play on this to their advantage.

      5. Ah, then I’d recommend spending some time looking at some of the good blogs run by disability activists – and trawling twitter too. There’s some good stuff out there.

    3. “the married couples tax break is all about supporting stay-at-home parents;”

      No- no it isn’t. The *rhetoric* hinges on that, but it’s a derisory amount of help. It’s worth a couple of hundred quid to most families: if you take into account what’s spent on the average wedding, the payback time is about 125 years! A very poor ROI.

      If they *seriously* wanted to help stay-at-home parents with tax breaks, they’d enable the non-working partner to donate their tax allowance to the working partner- giving a tax-free band of around £18,000. That would actually do something to lift a lot of badly-paid sole earners out of the tax system altogether.

      Back when we last had a married couple’s tax allowance, you could either have separate assessment (sensible if both working) or joint assessment (better if a sole earner) – joint assessment was worth around 1.5 times a single person’s tax allowance. That would give a tax-free band of around £13,500- still a useful leg up.

      But they won’t do that- it would cost too much.

      They’re providing a very small hand-out, and calling it “famliy-friendly”.

  8. Brilliant post, Paul, I think your empathy is amazing.

    Only thing I can think to add is that it’s incredibly hard work in itself having to deal with such psychologically oppressive terminology, so people who use it make it still harder for us to get work.

  9. Comment posted for @fp_em (an angry Cambridge resident)


    That phrase is utter bullshit. Not just because it implies there are masses of people so lazy they are not welcome in the Conservative Party, but on a very personal note it hurts me really deeply. For some people in the UK just staying alive is incredibly hard work.

    I have multiple disabilities, and rely on benefits as my only source of income: I am very lucky to have family and friends who help me out on an informal basis. Let me spell out to you why for me, just staying alive is the hardest work I’ve ever had to do.

    Firstly, there is my physical health. I have multiple physical conditions which means, amongst other things, that my balance is poor. This has lead to fairly serious falls in the past and I’ve been lucky to only have minor concussion. These falls are less regular now as I have finally (after 4 years of battling) been given a suitable wheelchair, so when I feel it is not safe for me to walk I use my wheelchair. This, however, presents yet another life threatening situation in itself as several times I have been ‘ejected’ from my chair whilst trying to mount a curb (no one can tell me why it does this some times but other times is fine) and once flew me in to the path of an on coming bus. I was very lucky that it happened to be the bus I had just got off moments before and thus was going at a very slow speed and stopped in plenty of time. Another part of my condition is that any injury I do get is slow to heal, thus increasing the potential for infections especially in any open wound such as those that happen during surgery.

    These are just a couple of examples of how, physically, it is very difficult for me to stay alive. My biggest barrier to staying alive is my mental health. I often joke that my brain is trying to kill me, but it actually is. Most people assume that because my physical health is so “bad” that I’m bound to have poor mental health, but the truth is my mental health severely disabled me before my body started to fail me. I’d rather not go in to the horrific details of what my brain does to me, because I fear that someone may read this & be triggered by it – but anyone with any compassion and an ounce of empathy must be able to realise what awful anguish it can be.

    Now, forget for a moment that staying alive is hard work. Having a disability in itself is incredibly hard work. For example, I have been fighting for 18 months to get minor adaptations to my flat done. I fought for almost 4 years to get the appropriate wheelchair I needed, and I am also in the middle of an 18 month continual battle with social services over my care package and I am fighting mental health services for the treatment I need. I also have three PALS complaints pending. This is all on top of all the medical admin that goes with my disability. This year I have seen 3 rheumatologists, five occupational therapists, two social workers, one psychiatrist, three case workers, two advocates, a support worker, three separate GPs, two physiotherapists, been admitted to hospital twice as a planned patient and once as an emergency, had specific appointments with two other consultants, attended four separate hospitals over 60 miles apart & spent countless hours with my long suffering MP explaining all these issues in an attempt to get him to understand just how draining it is to be me. And you know what? Compared to some of my friends my medical list is quite minor.

    And even if you are not disabled, trying to eat with enough balanced nutrition from the food bank or family/friends hand outs because of a cock up in your benefits (entirely NOT your fault) whilst caring for a toddler and being expected to look for paid work (as @msjackmonroe explains in her blog) is hard work. So much harder than you could ever imagine.

  10. I think the great trick with “hard-working people” is that it’s a compassion killer. Most people perceive that they work harder than other people – obviously some people do, but since none of us sit watching other people all day, it is easy to imagine that we work harder than other people. When a politician talks about hard-working families, folk are inclined to think, “That’s me! It’s about time I got something back.” When they see folks around them effected by cuts, losing their jobs or facing far more fragile employment, there’s an inclination to think, “Well, perhaps they should work a bit harder.”

    There’s been some great sociological studies into impoverished and socially disadvantaged communities during the last few years, where even people who are long-term unemployed or incapacitated welcome a crackdown on the mythical section of society who simply aren’t pulling their weight.

    The really miserable thing about this particular government is that it really does seem to be about money – I get the impression that hard-working and high-earning are equivalent in their minds.

    1. Totally agree it taps into the narative of the self, im working harder and others in trouble haven’t worked hard enough, it creates an us and them as opposed to people working together for mutual benefit working in the same direction. Hard work is hard to quantify so most assume in paid jobs they give more effort than others and as they only think of themselves they assume they do work harder. The problem being we have no understanding of others in society and even in our community we don’t know them personally so make assumptions. Working class people know extreme hard work is pointless (a long history of this has gave people this experience over centuries) so don’t work more than necessary meanwhile the Tories create a us and them hard workers vs shirkers idea. Most people look at things and think yeah im one of them and wheres my rewards, meanwhile employers has cut back on most workers rewards, many are lucky to get a minimum wage and few get other benefits as in the 1950’s like days out to the seaside, doctors on site, personnel departments and good breaks, its not all about financial reward. Workers were loyal and they respected their employers as a result.

  11. Very nicely written. Having been a full-time parent to a profoundly autistic child after a violent marriage and subsequent turbulent divorce, a commuting upholstery sewing machinist and a carer to the elderly with dementia over the years, I have *always* been a hard worker.

    I still work hard. Getting out of bed is sometimes difficult, bathing unsupervised is completely out of the question, dressing can be painful and I could have a seizure at any time in the most dangerous of situations. Getting to the corner shop and back is hard work, as is self-powering a wheelchair when you don’t dare trust your legs.

    Thank you for this; I was feeling quite despondant and very much of a burden to my husband and society as a whole quite recently, but you’ve reminded me that I earn every penny of disability I get because just being able to live a semi-normal life is hard work.

  12. Reblogged this on Wine And Roses From Outer Space and commented:
    As of late I’ve been feeling a little disparate and very much like a burden on the tax payer, in spite of knowing perfectly well that I can’t change things and that it isn’t my fault. This is a very timely reminder for me that – actually – I earn every penny of my disability payments simply by trying to live as normal a life as possible. Recovering from serious epilepsy-related injuries takes time and a good deal of effort on the part of my body’s system and this often leaves me to weak to get out of bed, if I haven’t broken something and am just unable to get out of bed anyway. I am no wimp, thank you very much, so if I say that I am incapacitated for any reason then it means that I am incapacitated!

    and I work hard, every day, just at getting better and trying to shuffle about as normally and as safely as I can.

  13. No, please don’t make it a shouting match; take a leaf from George Lakoff. Politics is all about “framing” and use of language. I don’t want to hold a big candle for Lakoff but it’s worth reading his book (despite the appeal to Americanism). He criticises the Orwellian language of the Right but says it is best not to tackle the frame head on. Rather, appeal to one of two frames 1. authoritarian 2. nurturing. Use language, not facts, to persude. Use words like love, happiness, beauty. The idea is first to capture the emotional ground of your audience. Here’s the link:

  14. Thank you for this – my thoughts exactly! Except I don’t usually give a silent scream when I hear the words, usually I give a string of expletives but it depends on the location!
    When I was a single parent, some 15 years ago, I asked my MP with whom I’d had some correspondence about the single-parent-bashing there was at the time (might be still going but it was virulent then) and asked him ‘why is it that my sister is deemed to be working and I am not working? Answer because another woman pays my sister to look after a child and I am looking after my own. Which isn’t work apparently. Explain.’ He had to agree with me.

  15. Yes, it’s extremely annoying, like listening to very odd parrots.

    More importantly, I have no idea how those talking about hard working people ( or families) intend to define or identify them in order to support them.

    The tax and benefit system may know whether I’m in work, how much I earn, and perhaps how many hours I work. But I might be getting £20,000 a year in return for working my bollocks off, or for merely sitting at home on gardening leave, and HMRC wouldn’t have a clue which. Or is anybody in paid employment automatically regarded as “hard working” ?

    1. The one thing never said in all of this is what’s wrong with being lazy? If folk had the choice of sitting at home or working a shit job for the same money, there’d be a lot of people watching wank daytime tele right now.

  16. hard work is doing back breaking work and doing things that you really dont want to do for a living and you practically kill youself everyday just to earn a dime……..i know this because i work for a living and i go to school and my family has to work just to put food on the table while the government is trying to take away our guns that put the majordity of the mood on the table so we dont starve……………………………………..this is the true meaning of hard work in my opinion……im sorry if you dont agree but this is life……

  17. people will work only what it takes to do a job and do it well, hard working for the sake of it is utterly pointless. We all do things we don’t want to do as we know not doing it will result in consequences, such as not emptying bins or not cleaning our toilet (we cannot all employ cleaners like David Cameron). But the phrase has little actual meaning other than to turn people on others perceived not to work hard. I’m a hard working person but those next door aren’t. it also created individualism, the individual is responsible for everything, their own destiny, their own success, they aren’t successful due to their lack of effort – even though there is no evidence they haven’t given effort or tried hard and ignoring some people get things for other reasons than simply working hard. Also ignoring people have a range of abilities and disabilities. It taps into Tory ideology of the individual, the state and collective it represents holds people back despite Britain being utterly productive in more collective ideology eras. The hard working rhetoric also devalues holidays (people feel guilty as they aren’t seen to work hard), family time, parenting (despite social issues arising) children and other things which stop the idea that work and money are the only valuable things in society.

  18. From the article all I can say is yes, a big corporation is just a group of people seeking profit all the time so that a group other people (Share Holders) could pocket the money. This is being done by slaving people to ignore their own needs and this slavery is termed as “Hard Work” by them, where a person works compromising on their health, family , relationships and what do they get in return, insufficient returns, harassment, humiliation and dis respect , no humane treatment at all. It is not Hard Work it is Slavery.

    Hard Work should consist of what a person loves to do it should generate love in a person to such a great extent that he / she would just merge in that activity in that love automatically, it should increase the feeling of love , compassion, it is from these deep seated feelings , emotions , behaviours , actions , virtues would the element of Respect, True Dedication, Conviction ,Commitment, Humanity (humane treatment ) would come forth. Hard Work should be like No Work at all but just an extension of you as a person , it should be part of you it should be you, where in that particular activity which we love while doing it we wont even notice how much we have done we can just keep going on and on.

    People working (slaving) on a job where the surroundings is one of hate , deceit, dis respect, disharmony, people sensitive to it will pick it up and will be a person of hate. It is just slavery and not work. We must do something that we love down to the deepest core of our being , then if our love for it is strong enough it will certainly spread if we hate what we do that will also certainly spread.

    I do agree that there people in this world who have major difficulties even to do very simple tasks that are taken for granted such as even getting out of bed, tying shoe laces , cooking etc.. they struggle a lot with these kind of everyday tasks , because of their illness or disability , what kind of difficulty they would be facing with every day of their lives doing something that they hate. What life is this , is life worth living with so much of hate?

    Dear Friends I would urge you even though you need the money while doing the things you hate, do also the thing you love bit by bit, it is by doing bit by bit the thing we love everyday we manage to keep our balance.

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