What is it with politicians and work? If you feel like you’ve heard Iain Duncan Smith’s mantras – “work is the route out of poverty” “we will make work pay” – that’s because you have. These were central tenets of New Labour’s New Deal and other welfare reform measures. Without work apparently we are not worthy. But what does that say about how our society values those who cannot be, or who no longer are, “productive economic units”?
If work is the way we demonstrate our central worth to society, the implication is that people who do not add economic value are worthless. It is a very narrow and dangerous philosophy to adopt, for it effectively writes off almost half of the population in Scotland as having, at best, a limited value. And you only need to consider how we perceive, and subsequently treat, the non-economically viable in our society to determine just how unhelpful such a concept is.
It means, for example, that older people are of much less value than those that are of working age. That shows in how we often treat the older generation disdainfully, with derisory consideration of their financial security and for their physical and emotional well being. Likewise, disabled people whose needs are so complex that many simply cannot work – or if they do, they require huge levels of support – are marginalised, not only because of our innate fear of difference but also because we view them as a drain on our limited resources. Families with a disabled child spend most of their lives fighting for services and support which are increasingly rationed. Carers too are devalued – their allowance is not paid in respect of the care they provide but to represent the earned income they go without. People with mental health problems or long term or recurrent conditions find it hard to secure decent, well paid employment, because their potential productivity and therefore economic value is viewed with suspicion by prospective employers.
Women who choose to stay at home to raise their families often feel – and are made to feel – like lesser beings, their role in nurturing the next generation dismissed out of hand. Much of what we do for our children is motivated by our anxiety to produce the next generation of earners rather than our desire to give them enriched and nourishing childhoods.
Even within the world of work, there are hierarchies and divisions. Thus, those in the private sector are viewed as wealth creators while everyone else is not. Some careers and jobs are much better rewarded and lauded than others. One of the reasons we now harry half the population of young people into higher education is because of the need to achieve more rewarding and therefore, more satisfying work. Yet, someone has to do the menial, the mundane, the everyday stuff that keeps all of our lives ticking over. And just as importantly, we need the dreamers, the artists, the thinkers, the writers and the musicians whose contribution to our net wealth in the world of work is often marginal, but without whom our lives would be so much poorer.
We have all, to a greater or lesser degree, become caught up in this fallacy. On meeting someone new, one of the first things you will be asked is what do you do, and your value and worth to that individual, and their view of your value and worth in our society, will often be determined by the answer you give. But it is a concept that is being deliberately misused to justify welfare reform, that places the individual as primary at the heart of our society and reinforces the cost of everything but the value of nothing. It signals an increasingly intolerant, divisive yet homogenous society, that there are those who work and are therefore valuable to our communities and those who do not and consequently, are worthless.
Describing the reforms as a revolution may, in the short term, allow the ConDem government to reconcile its collective conscience with some of the worst aspects of the changes but the long term result will be increased inequality in our communities and greater illiberalism in our outlook and attitude. Could there be another way?
“Work is a central part of life. But it is not all that matters. We all care about making a living, but we don’t just care about that. Here is our generation’s paradox: the biggest ever consumers of goods and services, but a generation that yearns for the things business cannot provide. Strong families. Time with your children. Green spaces. Community life. Love and compassion…. We must shed old thinking and stand up for those who think there is more to life than the bottom line”. It will be interesting to see if Ed Miliband manages to transform this thinking into a coherent policy framework that redefines and broadens our society’s understanding and acceptance of worth and value.