The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy

We could have the leisure society if we wanted it. But Samuel Smiles won; our lives are ruled by a w

In 1857, Charles Dickens observed that the nation was overpopulated, over-pauperised, over-colonising and overtaxed. Over-colonising is no longer a problem - we managed to get rid of the British empire and the cost of running it, but the rest of his description stands untouched. A population of 22 million, which seemed worrying enough in Dickens's time, is now approaching 58 million. True, a birth rate of 35 per 1,000 has fallen to 12 per 1,000 (not enough to replace the existing population), but any shortfall in numbers is topped up by immigration and higher life expectancy.

We are still over-pauperised: more than a quarter of all government-managed expenditure goes on help to the poor. And what in Dickens's day seemed gross overtaxation at 3p in the pound is now for most people around 30p, once we've paid not only our income tax but our road tax, inheritance tax, our community charges and all the rest of it. But we manage, we manage: we go on living longer and longer, in spite of pollution and GM foods and mercury in our teeth fillings. Life expectancy will soon be twice what it was when Dickens made his speech in 1867. He died, poor man, in 1870, aged 57. Here am I, a novelist of today, ten years older than that and still going strong, thanks to good nutrition and medical care: I'd have been dead once if it weren't for antibiotics, and twice if not for surgery.

We manage, mostly because of the rise of technology and science. Robots dig for coal, fetch up oil, and make our motorcars and our largely prefabricated buildings; computers keep information circulating. A good deal of the work and the information is totally unnecessary, but the technological west is now, perforce, in search of an occupation, and is really good at inventing tasks for itself to do. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy delays decisions and makes efficiency impossible. A letter that in Dickens's time took a day to get anywhere in the country can now take up to five. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was in the bookshops six weeks after the unsolicited manuscript turned up at the publishers. Today, two years would not be unusual.

But at least everyone's working, which means consuming: this is what it takes to keep the wheels of industry and state turning. It may cost £10 to get a single disposable nappy through the structures of the NHS and into a maternity ward, but at least those who block its path are in employment, and so can afford the 50p that keeps the baby back home dry and comfortable for a whole three hours. The leisure society we envisaged back in the 1960s didn't happen: on the contrary, we work harder and longer accomplishing less. It turned out that we had more appetite for employment than for leisure. It suited the nature of our species.

All sections of society are roped in to help with the need to consume. Education, starting young and going on late, not only puts the growing child into the habit of work, but each learning child supports the buying power of a band of bureaucrats, advisers and experts, those who dispense and guard some £16bn-worth of annual "educational" expenditure, not to mention supporting the selling power of Microsoft. It takes a cluster of 20 children or so to earn themselves an actual teacher.

Our mid 19th-century education acts were brought in, not because "the new industrial workers, moving to the cities from the countryside, had to be taught to read the instructions on the machinery" - as the curriculum still teaches - but because workers had to be taught to turn up punctually and not lie in bed when the weather was bad. Not even the threat of starvation could get some people out of bed on a fine morning, let alone if it was raining or cold. The new machinery, designed to run 24 hours a day, was looking too vulnerable to the pulses and whims of human activity to produce a proper return on an expensive investment. So get 'em young, went the thinking. Get them into "schools"; let the truant officer terrify; let the register morning and afternoon be an unbreakable ritual; demand a sick note to explain absence - surely an element of compulsion in our early years makes it easier for us to toe the line later.

The perceived problem has always been that the machine works steadily and sensibly; humans do not. In fact, we would be more productive, and our employers would be wealthier, if we worked when we felt like it. Our natural work rhythms are not nine to five daily and a weekend off: more like a week working hard with time off only for sleep, and then a week's rest. Anyone who is self-employed recognises the pattern. Endeavour is seldom steady; as with us today, so with yesterday's peasant farmer, who worked day and night to bring the harvest in and then fell asleep until winter was over. The work patterns imposed on us since Dickens's day are unnatural. We may live longer and healthier lives, but not necessarily in tranquillity and contentment.

For, alas, we live in an ergonarchy: rule by a work ethic closely entwined with a consuming duty. Where once we worked in order to make things, and thus keep warm and fed, now we work in order to earn, and earn in order to spend in order to work. Samuel Smiles got his way: we are all industrious now, yet a technology he never envisaged accomplishes all necessary tasks for us. The job that the uneducated single mother on workfare is given is unlikely to contribute to society: rather, she will be packing mini-skirts so that teenagers can change their clothes three times a day, or something similar, and she will be marginally cheaper to run than a machine.

We are in the ergonarchy now. The purpose of our lives is no longer to laud God and bear witness to the marvels of his creation, but by virtue of the work of hand and brain - and mostly brain - to consume. To spend on the microwave and the convenience food in order to earn the time to get the child back from the minder and fed before going to bed, to get the sleep that humans require and which the employer has always so begrudged. (A multinational corporation, mind you, never sleeps: it's always awake somewhere, which may be why in today's society it so thrives.) In an ergonarchy, the relationship between work and money is fragile. Profit share as an employee, sure; but fashion, not productivity, dictates the value of the shares you own. Fine if you're working in cyberspace, not so hot if you're in retail. The lottery, not natural justice, rules.

And what a hard taskmaster the ergonarchy is, for men and women both, pushing us out of bed in the morning whatever the weather, out of the house to some distant place of employment decreed by the planners, on public transport or over the road bumps into a traffic jam, stuck listening to the radio (though some claim that's the best part of the day), our children socialised by their peers and their teachers and not ourselves, family life at the end of its tether, and for what, for what? Sure, ergonarchy comes bearing gifts: a brand new car and a holiday abroad, and a pension at the end of it provided you invested your serial redundancy monies properly and retrained wisely. But he's a devil and don't forget it. Ergonarchy thrives at the citizen's expense. Lying there licking his sticky fingers while we work and spend. Just sometimes he offers us a sweet. And we never even asked him in: he just happened.

Adults in Britain work the longest hours in Europe - an average of 48 a week, which means some must be doing 60, 70 hours, and that's not including overtime. Yet we have the lowest productivity in Europe and it's falling. Of course it is. We're tired and exhausted - look at the faces on the London Underground in the evening rush hour and be appalled - and our love lives suffer. Our sexual partners come and go because keeping them takes too much energy. The young, reaching their 30s, find themselves without permanent partners. Single-person households begin to be the norm. The old social structures dissolve: marriage is a serial event, and families that contain stepchildren will soon outstrip those that don't. Inside an ergonarchy, men complain of impotence, and women choose not to have children. How can women afford the time off work, the break in the career, let alone the emotional impact of the child? A woman who is a mother can't serve the ergonarchy as the ergonarchy sees fit. The ergonarchy wins, the birthrate falls. The old are denied their grandchildren. In the ergomaniac economy, paperwork expands exponentially: every hotel has a laptop connection and a pile of leaflets to tell you how to work it. We compete with one another, developing our skills, training and retraining for jobs that disappear as soon as we find them. "Flexibility" is just another word for personal disaster.

In the ergonarchy, language changes: "the job" becomes "the career". We are persuaded to work harder and harder, longer and longer, in what appears to us to be our own interests. Thus divided, we are easily ruled. Rightly suspicious, we look round for someone to blame, but find only ourselves - and so lose the gift of protest. Our oppressors have a shifting form. We can't locate them to oppose them; they are too well hidden in the bureaucratic undergrowth. Our "manager" works even longer hours than we do. Well, forget it. Ergonarchy spits out the old, the tired, the weak, the inadequate, but will not let them rest. The dole gets replaced by the jobseekers' allowance: how busy and anxious the work-free are kept, training for interviews, competing for courses, helped with their CVs and letters of ritual application.

Ergonarchy, this foul new bedfellow, was bred out of communism by capitalism: his midwife was feminism (all women into the labour market, all the children kibbutzised); his tutor was the international business school and he is married to the politics of the Third Way. Soft-talking Blairism is his factotum. Harsh Thatcherism, with its talk of lean efficiency and streamlined economy, was a powerful fairy godmother, useful enough at the birth, but now ignored. More carrot needed, less stick.

We are all workers now, yet who is concerned with the welfare of the worker? No one. The individual employer carries on as ever, exploiting the employee's labour for his own profit. The big corporations look after the needs of the shareholder at the expense of the worker; this is no more than their duty. The large state organisations have degenerated into Kafkaesque cost-cutting exercises, run by accountants who seem to love buildings and hate people, and see it as their duty to save the taxpayers' money at the employees' expense.

The trade unions, in this feminised age, when all must be consultation and common cause (female) and not confrontation (male), have been de-barked. All the old guardians can do is mouth silently at the serried rows of work-stations, in the darkened rooms where the ranks of the employed - computer-literate after their many years of education, education, education - pass their lives changing the configurations of the screens in front of them and, if the managers don't notice, playing computer solitaire. All are entranced. The light is dim and the blinds lowered so the sun doesn't catch the screens. Was that the grating sound of doubts being raised? Don't listen to it! So the world stops here; who cares? Ergonarchy winks and grins and rolls over in the bed you vacated this morning so early. Who wants to go home anyway? Home's boring.

The ergonarchy is the age of the biological sciences. We hurtle blithely into a future where scientists work out how to stop us ageing, how to make plant and animal life obey our orders, rather than follow any innate pattern of growth and death. The splendid tomato on your plate carries fish genes so it can grow in a cold climate; I have a new knee you can't tell from the original. Spare cloned body parts will soon be available. Some worry about dangers, but not enough for the rest of us to cry enough, enough, enough, or me to refuse my new knee.

What George Orwell envisaged in 1984 and what Aldous Huxley envisaged in Brave New World combine to create a Newspeak world in which we are manipulated and watched by governments, while soothed out of protest by mood-altering substances. In the ergonarchy, we yearn to improve on God and/or Mother Nature - however you care to refer to the great guiding moral principle - in whom fairness was never exactly observable; and to make all things fair. Genetic technology has cured one of the great injustices of the human condition: that men stayed fertile all their grown lives, but women had to cram their fertility into 25 years or so.

In the ergonarchy, women begin to enjoy the gift of fertility-equality. Deep-freeze your ovarian tissue when young and in peak condition: grow your eggs as late as you like. All of a sudden, the biological clock is ticking more softly, so soft you can hardly hear it at all. And just as well, some will say. A new solution arises to meet a new problem. Ergonarchic woman has little time or energy to find the right partner when still young: she may well need a few extra decades before she meets up with the man of her dreams.

It may well be the pattern of our working lives in the future, that women have their careers first and then raise their children in their retirement, using their pension plans to fund themselves. It would certainly suit the state if they did, saving the benefits that now have to be paid out to the generously reproducing and improvident young. Employers would appreciate it. Mothers make rotten employees, always thinking of something other than their work and dashing off home. Fathers begin to do it, too. In the meantime, the single young in their one-person households make the best earners and the best consumers.

In the ergonarchy, it is not unusual for mothers to have children, naturally, in their 40s. With the aid of a little genetic technology, they can do it in their 50s and 60s. Of all advances, this one seems to rouse the most fear and loathing. "What about the children?" cry the horrified protesters, groping for argument, and finding only emotion. Who wants to be met at the school gate by a wrinkled hag? Who wants to be orphaned early? But if the choice is between embarrassment and not being born in the first place, being orphaned early or not being born at all, I reckon most of us would choose life. Better to be born to a flawed parent than not born at all. Whoever had faultless parents anyway, whoever was not embarrassed when young at the school gate? The wrong hat or the wrong car will do it; forget the wrong age.

In the ergonarchy, we are nervous about age, but fierce in the protection of our young. We find paedophiles under every stone. The idea of "schoolgirl pregnancies" strikes us with horror and disgust. We believe that maturity is to be reckoned by chronological age. We maintain that sex at 153/4 is too young for sex, but 16 is OK. We are competitive with other nations. We worry about why Britain has so many pregnant girls, while Holland, for example, has so few. Education, education, education, comes the answer; forget that the de facto age of consent in Holland is 12; that to the rebellious young, what is forbidden is alluring.

In the ergonarchy, the young, feeling the impending weight of their dull, hard-working maturity, are contrary and they court danger. They don't heed health warnings.

They think they'll live forever in perfect health. They think only bad girls get pregnant. Warn them against cigarette smoking by showing them the blackened lungs of those who died of lung cancer, and they'll compete to see who can have the blackest lungs. Show them a heroin addict crouching in a corner in a poster, and heroin chic is born. Sex is a riot, sex education seldom is; that's the problem.

In the ergonarchy, society itself is feminised. We have turned into a sharing, caring, forgiving, apologising nation: hear it in the emotional, touchy-feely language of government. We even go to war because we care. The old male values of patriotism, reticence, decency, manliness, stiff upper lippishness are out the window. Some kind of gender switch has been thrown, like the one on a miniature rail system which sends all the rolling-stock back the other way.

How else explain why we woke up one morning and found the Conservative Party, so male in its image, suddenly lost not just an election, but credibility. The Conservatives fight back now, but with feminine wiles. They, too, have learnt the value of the emotional approach. They feel, they care, they, too, are just like you and me, battling against adversity, not authoritarian figures in a distant universe.

To say that society is feminised is not to say that the values traditionally attributed to women actually describe them, or ever did. Just as not all men are brave and tough, not all women are soft and kind - or only where their babies are concerned, and not even then. Since looking after babies no longer takes up all of a woman's life, if any of it, any more than fighting wars, defending territory and protecting families takes up a man's, we must begin to look for our identity outside our gender.

But it is hard for women to give up their traditional roles as victims, just as it has been hard for men to lose their sense of national identity, to meld into Europe and become what the ergonarchy demands of us all: that we trudge gently over the brow of the hill, men and women together, good earners all, to become the Northern Consumer Force, pride of the future.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy