Yesterday I read a really interesting article from the New Economics Foundation. In essence, it said that the UK has the highest amount of average working hours per week, and not much of an economy (or quality of life) to show for it. Countries such as Germany and Belgium have better standards of living, and stronger economies, with less hours being worked on average. Yet the UK slavishly sticks to its workaholic attitude. Why? In this post, I want to think out loud about the idea of ‘hard work’, framed particularly by what Hay and Rosamond (£) call the logic of no alternative: the idea that questioning the current orthodoxy and mooting alternatives is taken off the cards via ‘an inexorable and fatalistic unfolding economic’ language.
The NEF post also discusses British politicians’ obsession with the idea of the ‘hard working family’. This is a particular annoyance of mine (along with the hundreds of others). As someone who uses critical discourse analysis, I can’t escape looking at the relationship between language and power. So the first question I ask myself is who defines a hard working family? What does it actually mean? Surely 90% of families will consider themselves hard working? I suspect this is more so in a recession, with an ever increasing cost of living.
The notion of ‘hard working families’ is designed to create a particular norm. The more we hear about it, the more it becomes normalised – just a part of life. But so do particular interpretations of the notion; those who propagate it are the ones who populate it with meaning. So the idea of ‘hard work’ takes on a particular inherent meaning: to be ‘hard working’ means to work many hours in a traditional waged or salaried job. How ‘hard working’ you are is linked to value, which is linked to money. It plays in to the traditional notion of the harder you work, the more successful you are.
We can see links here with forms of stigma, such as welfare stigma. If you work hard, you won’t need to be on unemployment benefits. So if you’re on benefits you’re likely workshy or lazy. To get yourself off benefits, you must work hard and show your commitment to a traditional ideal of waged labour, therefore breaking you out of the ‘cycle of dependency’ anyone who isn’t a hard worker is caught on. If you are in this cycle, you are simultaneously the perpetrator and the victim. A cycle suggests some structural constraints, but the rational-actor model suggests you went wrong somewhere; you made the wrong choice.
This system/environment/regime – whatever you want to call it -(re) produces very particular power relations, as well as producing particular economic and political outcomes. To make money you need as much cheap labour as possible. I don’t think that for most people hard work is a choice freely made (in the sense that people may want to do a good job, have pride in their work, but they don’t want to work 12 hour days). Echoing the NEF piece, I think it’s more of a case of people holding down more than one job, or working more hours than their paycheck warrants (hello casual workers in HE!) in order to make ends meet.
Hard work is about survival. The discourse of the hard worker essentially legitimises this struggle, and in some cases glamorises it. But who would willingly choose to have multiple jobs at minimum wage, so that by the time they’re done, they have little to no free time? At least when academics work long hours, it’s sometimes because they love the job (admittedly this is more on the research rather than the admin side).
Material elements play into this as well: wanting or ‘needing’ the latest shiny thing drives production drives the desire to earn more to have more disposable income. We all have a consumption habit, and we need to fund it. Fundamentally, perhaps it comes down to an issue of coercion and consent: we’re coerced in to working longer hours (threat of poverty, welfare and general social stigma, being behest to the state for survival), and we consent through the pursuit for more goods that we don’t really need but we feel gives us or enhances some feelings of worth and meaning in society. Obviously it is more complex than this; there are a multitude of elements at play, interacting at once.
But as a critical theorist/critical discourse analyst should, may I suggest we start by questioning why we feel the need to work so long, why we’re allowed to work for so long, and who benefits from our prolonged work and decreasing quality of life?