Disclaimer: I knew this was going to be a weird one – I had a lot of thoughts, and when I got to 1300 words and realised I had at least a third of those thoughts still to hash out, I did the unthinkable and sent DB a draft. He suggested breaking it up, so here’s part one.
You’ve probably realised that this isn’t going to be a super-focused, single-point post. You know, like the ones I normally write. I’m not sure where this is going, or what the final shape of it will be, and while it’s quite exciting (in a tiny, I-don’t-really-have-a-life way – when you’re getting your kicks from ‘writing without a plan’, someone really needs to make you do some cocaine), it’s something I’m not entirely comfortable with. If you’re going to be kind enough to read my work, I should at least take you from one place to another during the time it takes you to do so. That’s most of the point of writing and reading – to move and be moved. Without leaving your chair.
So consider yourselves warned: this is the kind of post where I figure it out as I go.
Last week, while in the grip of new-job-stress, tiredness, commuter rage and what I now realise was a massive case of PMS, I sent my long-suffering mother a text: “I just don’t have time to anything else but work during the week”. Yeah, me and 80% of my fellow travellers on the 7.12 from Brighton to London Victoria. Me and probably 70-odd % of the working population. Who has time for hobbies, in 2016? The very word “hobby” sounds, to me at least, vaguely sinister. Like having a hobby automatically involves making art out of roadkill, or a serial murdering habit, or being a pervert. Yes, I know this is nonsense, but some words are just crap and need to be banned, and “hobby” is up there with “naughty” and “hubby” and “sleeps”.
I digress, as always. The point is – I’ve been thinking. And what I’ve been thinking is this: we have a weird relationship with work. How we feel about it, how we talk about it, the importance we attach to it. I’ve got far more questions about this than I have answers; if anyone can point me to some good articles about it, I’d be overjoyed, as I’m not arrogant enough to think I’m the first person to ever go “hang on a minute, this is all a bit odd, isn’t it? We’re all working hard, most of the time, we don’t feel secure, we can’t afford anything… is it just me or is that weird?”
It sounds very Lefty and bleeding-heart-liberal and so very Brighton, but right now, we’re in the mindset that it’s more important to be “productive”, i.e. working and earning money, than it is to be healthy and reasonably happy. And this isn’t a new mindset, I just think it’s perhaps worsened over the last few years because of – well, because of the Conservative government. And their tasty little buzz-phrase: “hard-working families”.
If I never hear those three words in that order again, it will be far too fucking soon.
Because it tells you all you need to know about the people in power – that you only really matter to them if you’re economically active and part of a group. Their love of that phrase, and the tinnitus-like repetition of it, is easy to understand when you look at the backgrounds of the people who came up with it – well-off white men who all went to the same schools, were members of the same dining societies and all ended up working together. Of course they only look after people who have money and who are in clubs; that’s all they understand.
I don’t really need to explain the myriad problems with the phrase to you, though, do I? As soon as you hear it, all you can see in your mind is people who don’t fall into that group. Students, for example – hard-working, sure, but not necessarily paid. People with disabilities or illnesses that mean they can’t work. People who have lost their families – either to illness or accident, or through a relationship breakdown. Even people with jobs who are happily single, thank you very much. Hard-working, of course, but not necessarily part of a family. Ignoring the first and last two groups, and you’re looking at people to whom life has not been especially generous. But apparently, they’re not worth looking after.
Why is that OK? Why are the only people that count the “hard-working” ones? I didn’t even include “people who are simply unemployed, through no fault of their own or otherwise” – because in both the current government’s eyes, and our own broader mindset, “simply not working” feels like it’s the worst thing you can be. (Apart from maybe “fat” – and the bajillion reasons we need to take the moral judgment out of weight and eating habits is a rant for another post.)
So there’s that. The government continually wangs on about “rewarding hard-working people”, and the more we hear it, the more we believe it. Being hard-working is what matters – that’s how good things befall you.
I accept that this is, in part, very true. I also accept that you can’t do anything without money. I also want, very much, to be in work. What I’m not saying here is that I’d rather not. I go mad if I stay in the flat all day – and not because I don’t love our quirky little flat; she’s a beauty – but because a day without stepping outside is a waste, in my eyes. I need purpose, structure, deadlines. I don’t function so well without them. But it would be nice to have a little more choice about what that work is. And a little more hope that one day, I’ll be able to afford a place of my own, and won’t be at the mercy of letting agents and landlords and rather-too-relaxed property management companies. Because if a generation spends its entire academic career – that’s over a decade at the minimum – being told it will have a choice about its working life, and it will be able to afford the lifestyle it wants, if it just knuckles down and passes exams and gets a degree or two… well, you can’t expect that generation to shrug and go “OK, fine, whatevs” when the economy falls down a drain and the government decides that people under 30 can all just live with their parents, no biggie.
And I say all that as one of the luckier ones. As someone who was able to live with her parents for perhaps longer than both parties found desirable. As someone who is in work, for a large organisation, with a good reputation, that treats its staff well. But I know, deep down, I want to go in a different direction. I want to do more of this – sorry, guys, I know the occasional blog post is about as much as you can take – more writing, more manic opinionising, more spelling out the problems and asking the questions. I can’t go in a different direction yet (at least, I don’t think I can) because I need to keep paying rent. I can’t take a break to figure things out because I simply can’t afford to. And I know I’m so far from being the only one in that boat.
But it’s not as if being in that boat comes with any perks beyond merely keeping us afloat temporarily – put it this way, when I’m feeling a bit self-harmy, I just search “one bed flats to buy” on Zoopla, and weep at the prohibitive prices. And you can, up to a point, blame that on living in one of the more desirable parts of the country. We could go north, and get twice the space for half the money – but the work is here. And chances are, the only way we’re going to be able to afford property, or more bleakly, children, is off the back of a fairly hefty inheritance. This is why a lot of “millennials” (and that word needs to go and die in a hole, too) can’t think too much about the future. It depresses us too much.
We’re working, but it’s not paying.