This year’s Conservative Party conference has reminded us incessantly that George Osborne and his fellow ministers are “for hard working people”. This same slogan has also become popular among Labour politicians – indeed support for “hard working people” has replaced support for the working class.
The broader use (and overuse)
of this slogan by politicians reflects a deeper belief that hard work is the
proper way of living one’s life. Working hard is the way one gets on in life. No
matter that real wages have fallen in recent years, work is promoted as the
route to economic success.
Negatively, the benefits of hard work are contrasted with the evils of
idleness. The “idle poor” are the ideological counterpoint to hard working
people. This inevitably feeds hostility towards those on benefits and leads to
support for draconian
measures to force the poor and jobless into work even when jobs are in short
But this obsession with hard work as the route to economic success and moral
redemption has proved a dangerous distraction in several ways. Working hard to
earn a living need not be seen as a good thing if it means enduring long hours
of drudgery, long hours away from one’s family and friends, or undertaking
several low paid jobs with no security of employment. We lose sight of, and
indeed deny, the costs of wage labour by eulogising hard work.
History shows that capitalism brought about an increasing focus on the
virtues of hard work. Life in pre-capitalist times was more leisurely and less
pressurised; people worked much more irregularly and enjoyed extended periods of
free time. It is essentially with the rise of capitalism that the work ethic has
become idolised and lauded.
The rhetoric of George Osborne and his colleagues around hard working people
is not new but it remains regressive in its effects, not least in ignoring the
real hardships faced by those who work hard for a living.
The dream in the past was that capitalism would bring about a reduction in
work hours. Keynes
famously looked forward to the day when we would work only 15 hours per week. He
thought that rising levels of affluence would lead to a shorter working week and
to the liberation of humanity from hard work.
History has proved Keynes wrong as workers have continued to face relatively
long hours at work, and the prospects for shorter work hours any time in the
future look bleak indeed. In fact, with the squeeze on real wages, the
likelihood is that many more workers will be forced to work longer just to make
But there is a sense in which we could live better lives by working less.
Firstly, shorter working hours would provide a means to spread work more evenly
in society thereby combating the twin problems of unemployment and overwork.
Secondly, working fewer hours would free up more time for people to pursue
activities outside of work and thus to realise their creative capacities in
other ways. Thirdly, working less would help to combat the stress and burnout
associated with long and intense working hours.
Working hard, to be sure, can be rewarding. We can gain intrinsic reward by
doing work well on a continuous and intensive basis. Work that matches with our
needs, creative and material, can be
uplifting. But work has its place. There are other areas of life that matter
to our well-being and allowing work to dominate us can only lead to harm.
In essence, the struggle against the ideology of hard work is about the
struggle to overcome an economic and political logic that forces us to work
longer and harder than we would otherwise. Working less thus ultimately requires
us to think beyond capitalism.
George Osborne to think beyond capitalism? Don’t bet on it.