What does “hard-working” mean anyway?

We heard a lot about “hard-working families” during the general election campaign, and again now that two of the main parties (although how “main” the Liberal Democrats can be said to be now is open to debate) are involved in leadership election campaigns.

A few points have prompted me to marshall the thoughts I’ve been contemplating about this into some sort of order, so before I make the points I want to, here’s the things that crossed my radar:

Carter @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar:

…because of how we once lived, the ambition of the labour movement for years was to allow families to be less hardworking.Labor used to promise to increase leisure time and to provide opportunities for families to be less hard working, and more playful, more healthy…

Talking about pre-WW2 Britain, as Carter does in his post, reminds me that the big union campaign back then was “Not an hour on the day, not a penny off the pay”.

George Monbiot in The Guardian, in a piece titled Skivers and Strivers, This 200-year-old Myth Won’t Die:

England’s old poor law, introduced in 1597 and 1601, had its own cruelties, some of which were extreme. But as the US academics Fred Block and Margaret Somers explain in their fascinating book The Power of Market Fundamentalism, those who implemented it seemed to recognise that occasional unemployment was an intrinsic feature of working life.

Far from undermining employment, poor relief sustained rural workers during the winter months, ensuring that they remained available for hire when they were needed by farms in the spring and summer. By contrast to the loss of agricultural productivity that Malthus predicted and the commission reported, between 1790 and 1834 wheat production more than doubled.

The media’s campaign of vilification associates social security with disgrace, and proposes even more humiliation, exhortation, intrusion, bullying and sanctions.

This gets closer to my point, but the closest (albeit still tangential) is Oliver Burkeman’s piece (also in the Guardian) from a few weeks ago ago about “fudgelling” and Erin Reid’s research:

“Fudgelling”, I learned the other day, is an 18th-century word meaning “pretending to work when you’re not really working”, which goes to show it’s an age-old phenomenon.

People who made formal arrangements to reduce their workloads – more often women – got penalised for not pulling their weight. Yet the fake workaholics, predominantly men, were seen as no less devoted to their jobs than the real ones, and were rewarded accordingly.

What we’re dealing with here is “signalling” – in this case, how we communicate the message that work’s getting done, which doesn’t always mean work’s really getting done. At firms such as the one Reid studied, the gap between the two can spell disaster, as time and energy are poured into keeping up appearances.

What I want to note here is that the trend for the past twenty years or so has been, with out-of-work benefits, to place a greater and greater emphasis on the signalling aspect of looking for work. That is to say, demanding ever greater efforts to prove, or demonstrate, or make it look like, you’re looking for work. The “humiliation, exhortation, intrusion, bullying and sanctions” Monbiot references are all about this. And, as Burkeman comments, this takes time and energy away from finding work and focusses it on looking like you’re looking for work.

~ * ~

The real questions about the “hard-working families” rhetoric I wanted to ask, are: “How do we measure ‘hard working’?” and “Why do they choose that language?”

In Carter’s piece, and the point I noted, there are two ready ideas of how that might be measured: one is “hours worked”, and the Labour movement certainly from the 19th Century onwards, used to be about reducing hours worked so that people were fitter and healthier overall; the other is “gross pay” (that is, pay before taxes).

Hard-working could therefore mean, “earning lots of money”, or it could mean, “working long hours”.

Another measure could be, “Expending lots of energy” – someone who is neither well-paid nor working long hours might still be considered “hard-working” if that person is recognised as having done a lot in the time they worked, such that one might expect them to feel “exhausted” or “tired” (whatever meanings we wish to ascribe to those in a non-labour-intensive economy).

Of course, Burkeman’s piece (and the research he cites in it) highlights that a lot of this is about appearances: we decide someone is “hard-working” based on what they signal, rather than what they do. A classic example would be the assumption that teachers have a lot of time off, because school holidays are long, and school hours are short. What we don’t see are the hours spent each night marking papers, preparing lesson plans, and so on – and preparing a course for the next school year is, I am sure, not a short project over the summer either.

So, when politicians say they want to help hard-working families, do they mean those who earn a lot, those who work longer hours, or those who expend a lot of effort while at work? Or do they mean those whose work is of the “right” kind, that looks like “working hard”? I suspect they don’t really know. If you asked them how to tell whether a family is “hard-working” or not, I suspect they would say, “I know one when I see one” (which of course, ultimately boils down to “the right kind of working”).

~ * ~

The real reason they use the phrase, I suspect, is not to do with what they mean by it or how one could distinguish between “hard-working” and not.

The real reason is precisely because it’s hard to pin down whether someone is or isn’t, and at the same time, very few people think of themselves as being “undeserving” of a livelihood. The language is twofold: first, they want everyone (or the vast majority) to think, “They mean me!” and second, they wish to create the impression that other people are less deserving: the “skivers vs strivers” dichotomy.

I forget the name of the fallacy that goes, “They do it because they are bad people; I do it because of circumstances”. The way we ascribe motives to other people are generally based on morality judgements, whereas when we do the same things ourselves we tend to explain it by reference to needs and pressures.

Thus, that other person who’s claiming benefits is a scrounger, whereas I am temporarily out of work, or underpaid, or under-rewarded. “They are lazy, I am unlucky.” And so on.

And that’s the whole point of the rhetoric: to capitalise on that kind of fallacy and, as Monbiot describes in his piece, construct a fictitious image of the benefits claimant as morally suspect by virtue of not being in work.

The same people currently voting for the Tories would, no doubt, expect to be saved by the Welfare State should they fall on hard times, whether by injury, illness or redundancy. Only then would they realise that perhaps laziness is not the factor here. (And also, realise how much work goes into signalling, rather than finding work.) Would they then see themselves as scroungers or skivers?

So each person has their own definition of “hard-working”, that they use to justify themselves as being “deserving”. But when it comes to a tax and benefits system, you need some kind of objective measure to say what you are going to do to help, and who qualifies for that help. Suddenly, not everyone will be included.

Some are already excluded by the talk, of course. The people who are the clear targets (unemployed, or unacceptable forms of labour such as sex workers) are painted as the skivers, regardless of the effort that we put in to finding work, or doing the work of which they disapprove.

I have been out of work more than I’ve been in it, since I left university. To me this is a great frustration and if it is due to a personal failing, it is due to my naivety about how the job market worked, back when I was fresh out of university, and long gaps on a CV turn out to be damaging to one’s prospects of ending one of those gaps, creating a vicious cycle. I want to work. In some ways, I would be happier of society collapsed, because then there would be no question of languishing on the dole: everyone would need to contribute and it’s just “here’s a job, get on with it”. I did a summer job on a farm once, I’m sure I could be productive in the aftermath of the apocalypse.

My point being, I want to work. I want to do something useful, and to pay my way. But because I am currently not given paid work by employers, I am supposedly a “skiver” despite all the things I do to try to be useful in the meantime.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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