It's work, Jim - but not as we know it

Ralf Dahrendorf argues that the government's welfare reform policies may be undermined by a revoluti

I accept the principles behind this government's attempts to change the welfare state. But there may be one big flaw in the thinking. Everything is regarded as fluid - as either changing or in need of change - but one area of social reality is quite often, at least by implication, regarded as constant. That's the world of work. There are quite significant changes in the labour market and these are highly relevant to any policy of equality, or as I prefer to put it, of inclusion. They may be summarised in six statements.

1. Since the early 1970s the relationship between GDP growth and employment has become tenuous in all OECD countries. Considerable increases in per capita GDP were accompanied by little or no employment growth. In Japan, from 1970 to 1995, GDP per head grew by 150 per cent, employment by only 2 per cent. In the UK, which was fairly typical of Europe, GDP per head grew by just under 60 per cent, while employment ended 4 per cent down. Even in the US, where the connection between growth and employment remains, as is well known, positive, per capita GDP grew by just over 50 per cent, employment by 25 per cent. Thus there is at least a prima facie case for the thesis that we have experienced a period of jobless growth.

I believe, therefore, that we have to change our economic language. We can no longer assume that GDP growth equals employment creation. And this is an argument for abandoning GDP as the one-dimensional indicator of economic success or failure.

2. There is evidence of significant divergences between the traded and non-traded sectors of the labour market - for example, between financial services and healthcare. In the traded sector, expansion is generally accompanied by employment contraction; a higher output of goods and services is achieved with less labour. The non-traded sector, on the other hand, provides, in principle, unlimited opportunities for work.

The important point here is that jobs do not materialise automatically from favourable macro-economic conditions for GDP growth. On the contrary, they may contribute to a decline in jobs.

3. In all OECD countries, there has been a significant decline in the number of people in typical employment relationships: full-time permanent jobs (or, more precisely, full-time dependent employment without built-in time limits). The most thorough study of this change is that by a recent German commission. It concludes that "in countries where the employment rate has changed little, about a quarter to a third of typical employment relationships has been replaced by atypical ones since the 1970s". In western Germany, 84 per cent of those in dependent employment had typical contracts in 1970; by 1995, this proportion had gone down to 68 per cent with a particularly steep decline in the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s. If one includes the self-employed, those on employment schemes and the job-seeking unemployed, less than half of the employable population in European OECD countries is today in typical employment relationships.

My comment is that we have already learnt to think in new ways about the family: we no longer assume that the nuclear family is the only model. It is time to make a similar leap of understanding with respect to jobs and employment. What used to be typical is about to become a minority phenomenon.

4. The new forms of employment, which have grown in importance, include, above all, part-time work, limited-term jobs and contract employment. There are also home workers; those on employment schemes of one kind or another; paid self-employed workers; and some other categories for which we have barely found a proper description. In addition, there is a vast array of not-for-profit, or rather not-for-gain work, much of it in the third, or voluntary, sector.

This proliferation of kinds of work requires us to rethink many aspects of social policy. A welfare system based on typical jobs leaves people who work in the new categories uncared for. Tax and benefit systems need to be adapted. Methods of guaranteeing everybody a basic income through tax credits or otherwise become irrelevant.

5. Since the end of the second world war we have seen a huge decline in the role of paid employment of all kinds in people's time budget. Longer education, shorter working hours, more generous holiday entitlements, earlier retirement - all these accompanied the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s. Since 1970 we have seen two further developments. One is the frequency of portfolio living - or what might be called "women's pattern of life" - which combines employment and other activities. The other is the growth of ever earlier retirement at a time of rising life expectancy. The number of hours worked annually by the whole population has declined in most European OECD countries by 20 per cent since 1970. Retirement figures are even more dramatic. In the UK only 56 per cent of all 55 to 64-year-old men were in paid employment in 1995. The corresponding figures for Germany were 49 per cent; for Italy 42 per cent; for France 38 per cent.

These are figures of major significance. They show that universal social benefit systems can no longer be built on contributions from those in paid employment. They also show that work in the sense of paid employment loses much of its force as a source of satisfaction, of self-realisation and of social identity. More importantly still, work ceases to be an effective instrument of social control. How will people's time be structured in future?

6. Such changes in the world of work imply changes in the nature of unemployment. To be sure, there are still genuine problems of long-term unemployment. In the UK, in some inner-city areas, there are a large proportion of households without employment. Many no doubt, particularly single-parent families, need attention. But for many, unemployment is a phase between jobs, even an opportunity for alternative activities, including unfortunately, but tellingly, benefit fraud. "Total and helpless" unemployment as Beveridge described it in 1909, and as many countries experienced it in the 1920s and 1930s, and as most countries fought it in the 1950s and 1960s, may well turn out to be a peculiarly 20th-century phenomenon. It did not exist before, because people had alternative sources of survival, and it may not exist in future as new alternatives are discovered.

If the picture I have tried to sketch in these six points is largely correct, important policy consequences are indicated: for example, a reorientation of macro-economic policy towards jobs in the non-traded sector; the transportability of entitlements; a new approach to paid employment, other life activities and the sources of people's income and well-being.

Last March a group of 11 business and trade union leaders, as well as academics, wrote a letter to the Times. The implicit assumption of the government's reform policies, they wrote, was that the labour market will in the future provide the scale and type of employment required to support a shift from public to private provision. Yet we are also witnessing a revolution in the world of work, the longer-term implications of which are subject to speculation and controversy. What was needed, they argued, was a commission to pull together all the material that exists on the future of work and paid employment. Commission or not, I agree that the subject is of major importance and needs more consensus on facts as well as more debate on the consequences.

This is an edited version of a talk originally given last year at an 11 Downing Street seminar and now published, price £9.95, in "Equality and the Modern Economy", the first of a series from the newly launched Smith Institute, 191 Victoria Street, London SW1E 5NE

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain