With record employment rates, why is working life not more visible?

Posted in: Business and the labour market, UK politics

This week official statistics showed that, at 74.1%, the employment rate is at its highest since comparable records began in 1971. Nearly 23 million Britons work full time, and 8.43 million part time. In total, we work in excess of 1 billion hours a week.

When labour market statistics are published, they are widely reported. There are often accompanied by lively and important debates on such issues as income inequality, the gender pay gap or Britain’s productivity problem. But the world of work, and in particular the experience of working life, is far less visible in our public discourse and popular culture. Despite record employment levels, the daily working lives of millions of people do not loom large in our national consciousness. Why is this?

In the 1970s, newspapers had industrial correspondents. When workers went on strike, it made the national news. Trade union leaders were major national figures. Mass production generated communities of work which were geographical (places of work) and social (lived relations between people), as well as economic. Employment, and the claims to recognition, status and respect made by working people, were a central part of public life. It was a very male world, of course – certainly in terms of its structures of power and how it was represented. But it was nonetheless part of a shared social imaginary.

Deindustrialisation and technological restructuring, the decline of trade unions, and the rise of service sectors and their attendant consumption cultures, changed all this. Industrial correspondents disappeared. Workers no longer gathered for a show of hands outside plants to vote on industrial action. Strikes declined. Cultural capital increasingly marked out social class differences.  Invisible, female work – caring for the elderly and childminding – grew, and shopping centres took over from coal mines as paradigmatic workplaces. The experience of work featured less and less in public discourse (indeed, one of the reasons why the junior doctors’ strike has been such a big news story in recent weeks is precisely because the public sector still has unionised employees grouped together at large, highly visible places of work like hospitals).

Today, stories about work are often treated simply as “business” stories in the media. CEOs are interviewed but not their employees. Union leaders are treated as political actors, not representatives of employee interests. Popular culture focuses on identities constructed outside of work: sexual relationships, leisure, consumption and celebrity. Documentary programmes about working class people are more likely to take the unemployed, living on “Benefits Street”, as their subjects, than those in work.  Politically committed journalists still write important investigative books on the miseries of working life at the bottom end of the labour market, and popular sociologies of work have appeared in recent years. But 21st century Britain has yet to produce a Studs Terkel or George Orwell.

The most important new movement to challenge this marginalisation of working people’s lives in recent years has been the London Citizens and Citizens UK Living Wage campaign. Rooted in community organising, it turns statistics on low wages into human stories, utilising imaginative campaigning techniques to give dignity and voice to low paid workers. It has its counterparts in the citywide struggles for $15 minimum wages and “alt union” collective action that have sprung up in the USA.  These contest the “Trumpenproletariat” representation of working people as pitchfork populists.

Intellectual resources are at hand too. Though industrial relations has declined as a discipline in academia, the sociology of work flourishes in various new guises, as does the study of work organisation, labour practices and the utilisation of new technologies. In the last twenty years, significant intellectual studies of the changing nature of work have been written by the likes of Richard Sennett and the late Ulrich Beck.

Importantly, political theorists are also giving renewed attention to the world of work and employment. The concept of alienation – discredited for years by the backlash against humanist essentialism – has been revived by the German philosopher, Rahel Jaeggi, working in the Critical Theory tradition.  Her major work on alienation provides new conceptual tools for the critique of meaningless, isolation and humiliation experienced in contemporary forms of social existence, to which employment is often central.  From a different theoretical tradition, the US political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson draws on the resources of civic republication theories of liberty to critique the arbitrary power invested in the owners and managers of firms, and the relations of subordination and domination to which they can give rise – providing grounds for challenging both libertarian and liberal egalitarian account of employment relations.

Empirical studies of the labour market, and of the distribution of income and wealth, historical or analytical, remain vital to understanding contemporary capitalist economies. But the experiential dimensions of work, and how these can be conceptualised, deserve much greater attention in our media, political discourses and public culture. Millions of us might notice.

Posted in: Business and the labour market, UK politics


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