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Unemployment and the Work Ethic

A few weeks ago BBC Bristol reported the latest regional unemployment figures. Just under 18,000 people were recorded as claiming JSA with a drop of just under 400 people. The difference in the two figures is quite staggering and clearly shows that, despite the propaganda, unemployment is still massive.

If 16,000 people in the Bristol area are still out of work what chance does any one of them have – and that’s only the people registered as claiming JSA. The figures went no further into detail: no breakdown of what those 400 people are now doing, or even if they are in sustained work. They could be on some training scheme (workfare, for example), they could be signed off altogether, they could be sick/claiming ESA, they could well be in work – but that too raises questions. What type of work? Is it zero hours? Are they underemployed? Are they even still there?

Yet this is hailed, predictably and lamentably, as good news. The complete lack of any real explanation or evidence of the numbers is ignored entirely. It is assumed these people are all legitimately occupied elsewhere. It is not queried as to whether they will remain or return to claiming JSA, which itself assumes they have moved into adequate self sufficiency.

How are we meant to take any of this seriously? This will be used as further evidence of the efficacy of current policy. The Work Programme will, for example, be lauded as key to this miserly drop in the number claiming. Ironically, given the sanction regime, that might be true – though for the wrong reasons of course.

This was preceded by a ‘discussion’ about young people (representing the ‘spectre’ of unemployment) and the work ethic. That is: do they have a ‘work ethic’. Let’s get this out of the way: the work ethic is a social construct born of religion, in particular Christianity (as we live in a society rooted in it); the idea of ‘work hard now and ye will be rewarded in the lord’s kingdom later’. This underpins all discussion of work and what work should be; shutting down any other alternative or approach. Ironically those that champion this also lambaste socialism and yet there is something quite ‘socialist’ (in that Stalinist sense capitalists and libertarians view socialism) about the idea of the work ethic: a great social leveller.

It’s a license for division. For people who have jobs, and thus believe they have a work ethic (just because they have jobs), it’s an excuse to chip away at those lower on the social ladder than they, particularly those out of work. This is rubbish of course. Plenty of people in work are lazy or lacking in integrity, look at Duncan Smith! While plenty of people who aren’t paid work because they believe in the value of what they do beyond mere prostitution: the act of selling oneself in the capitalist labour market. I, for one, pursue my interests because they matter to me. I get no money from them, though I’d like to (only because we need money, I should add). Does that not suggest I have a better work ethic? Of course not, it’s about control, not about strength of character.

People are motivated to do things because they enjoy doing them, and/or because they see the value in doing so. I wash the dishes because I see the value in eating of clean plates. I certainly don’t enjoy it and it’s not a job I do for money. Isn’t that how it should be in society? If you have to bully me into work then something has gone wrong, that you most likely want to pay me as little as you are legally allowed tells me that you don’t really share the ‘work ethic’.

The problem is the working environment is being controlled by the likes of the CBI who can moan about kids leaving school unqualified as a means to foist the responsibility of training onto the education sector. So instead of having a rounded education inspiring a thirst for knowledge, for it’s own sake, we have Tesco running schools teaching McGCSE’s while moaning about how they’ve been dumbed down. This is the recipe for a brain drain.

Then they complain about CV’s – kids need experience, they say, something to put on the CV. But again that’s only required because these people say so. This experience means nothing, especially when your contemporaries are in the same position and thus have the same experience. It’s self defeating – though not for big business who gets cheap and free labour.

What is happening, under the guise of the work ethic and this nonsense about work experience, is exploitation. How much experience do people need to interact with people? These are not candidates for highly specialised, technical or expert roles. They are at best entry level positions, the sort given over by cheapskate gangmaster bosses to people from abroad. Why else is Poundland staffed by eastern European girls?


  1. I agree the "work ethic" is bullshit, and is used to shame people into drudgery and exploitation. I do believe the work ethic was necessary for our ancestors, who all (or nearly all) survived via subsistence farming, or going further back, by hunter gathering, When food was relatively scarce and hard to come by it may have been necessary for as many people as possible to be involved in the farming, growing, gathering or hunting of food, for the benefit of the tribe/community/family. But of course now we have an abundance of food and other resources, to the extent that with just a tiny proportion of people involved in farming the land (at least in the west) we are able to produce enough for everyone in the world to eat. The problem is with distribution rather than production, and this is true for virtually everything and not just food. With all of the basically useless jobs out there being filled by people working just to survive (I'm talking about call centre work, telemarketing, consultancy and other such nonsense) it's obvious jobs are being created just to keep people on an ever-running treadmill.

    I believe Keynes once said in the 1930s that by the end of the century we would have become so efficient in terms of production and farming we would be able to reduce the working week to around 15 hours at most. Well we have reached that level of efficiency, yet the working week only seems to get longer - I wonder where it has all gone wrong. Who benefits from people being compelled to work ever longer hours in what are basically useless jobs? One probably has to cast our gaze towards the plutocrats who run our economy for their own ends.

    Sorry for the ramble!

    1. I couldn't agree more!

      We are heading toward, at best, a brain drain.

  2. It all depends on what we mean by "work". We do need to work to support our life. A single person on a desert island needs to go and forage, or plant food, draw water, build a house, gather firewood and arrange things so that excrement does not contaminate the water supply.

    That is all life-sustaining work. It all involves ordering our relation with our environment.

    Social living makes it more complex, but it still based on ordering the environment. Some forms of work - munitions for instance, lead to disorder (house>rubble) and therefore should be called anti-work.

    Unemployment causes ill health (physical and mental) that cannot be explained by the social stigma applied by the Tory press propaganda. It is irrational to have unemployment when there is so much good work that needs to be done to heal society and environment.

    1. There is good work and, by extension, bad work. Sitting in Poundland for £0 is bad work. In fact it should be bad work by even a capitalist/tory definition since it earns nothing for the worker.

      Even if the worker was paid I wouldn't call it good work. It is soul destroying and unfulfilling. The worker might feel differently given that we live in a money-dependent society - particularly if they had a direct stake in that busines. Unfortunately we have a society where almost the complete opposite is true: they are so disenfranchised they still need state support to live as their wages are so low.

      So yes there is essential work, but this should be a more fulfilling experience and as such is it right to call it work? We no longer have a society where people are welcomed and brought within. People are told, from birth, the world they have come into owes them nothing - while expecting them to pay for their experience; as if they were stowaways on a ship. People's skills are wasted or ignored yet they are not trained in anything. Knowledge is now only prized if it makes a profit, not for its own sake.

      People don't have a stake in the society automatically and they do not have a share of the wealth of the land - the common wealth. Unless I undertake to great effort I do not have the means to self sufficiency; msot people haven't the chance to provide for all their own needs. That isn't how the people in power want things done since it eats into their profits.

      Even if we could the product of our effort would be worthless since we would no longer engage in barter and the size of our population would render that impossible; many would be left without. Capitalism doesn't regulate population.

      Unemployment per se doesn't cause anything. It is the condition the unemployed person finds themselves in, having been disenfranchised from society by the likes of IDS and his tory friends. Society favours conventinoal employment - work - so one who is unemployed is financially and socially ostracised. This is self defeating as we have seen through the effects of current (though by no means limited to this government) DWP policy. Sanctions induce poverty leading to debt addiction alienation and, if unchecked, death. This system is a disease that will only further drive the individual from society. That is what causes ill health.

      If unemployed people were respected as members of society just the same as anyone else and if we had a system that met people's needs without leaving them hungry or in debt or addiction or whatever undesirable circumstance, we would solve a lot of the problems that follow from unemployment.

      The first step to solving these issues would be the introductin of a citizens wage. That would also help to weed out the useless jobs in society since people would simply not do them. Consequently noone would be manning call centres to ring up people to sell nonsense for example. If people's needs were fundamentally addressed a more productive conversation about what jobs need doing could be had. People would then find they would do work that needed to be done for the right reasons - not just for money. Doing things for money (aka prostitution) is also something that contributes to ill health - look at the damage done to relationships right through society from frustration, workplace stress and demands, and financial hardship.

      Ultimately scarcity of resources is the problem. Most unemployed people could easily, if they were able to support themselves, lead fulfilling lives. Those that can't aren't necessarily going to be any less frustrated in work - particularly given how crap wages are these days. Those unemployed that are creative could be helped to contribute to a communal cultural effort (ive talked about this before).

    2. "yes there is essential work, but this should be a more fulfilling experience and as such is it right to call it work? "
      Well, what else would you call it?
      I am not fully persuaded that changing the label on a thing changes the nature of the thing. Work isn't a four letter word. Well, it is, but it is not a bad thing. This afternoon I have to spread many kilos of compost onto my garden. It's hard work, but it is good for me. It is satisfying and healthy and I get food out of it.

      Getting food, water, housing, energy and waste recycling sorted requires work. Protecting wildlife habitat requires work. Looking after ill and elderly people requires work to be done.

      Yes sure, some work is not good. Bomb making is not good. Bomb dropping is not good. Advertising is not good, usually.

      But let us look at the good work and try to maximise it.

    3. It's going to take a considerable shift before that happens unfortunately. You have attitudes such as those faced by Cait Reilly in putting her head above the parapet when bringing her workfare case to the governemtn. Baroness Kramer, a libdem, argued that she was better off working for nowt in Poundland than pursuing her desired (and studied for) vocation in the museum. She had done everything the government claims it wants for people off her own back and still that wasn't good enough. Why? Because she wasn't making anyone else richer.


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