Last Thursday marked three years since the start of the first British lockdown – and by implication, the third anniversary of the start of a conversation about life and work that is still going on, in the UK and all over the world.
As people were confined to their homes, it soon became clear that many of them were thinking deeply about their jobs, and the sacrifices they often required. Suddenly, people had time to consider more fundamental thoughts about family life, caring, free time, and the horrors of the daily commute. By the autumn of 2020, the result was a huge amount of media noise about rising conflicts between people’s “core values” and their everyday lives, the choices they were starting to make, and the newly fashionable prospect of somehow exiting the rat race. And it has never died down.
“Get your fucking ass up and work,” says that goddess of hard graft Kim Kardashian. But the cultural winds seem to be blowing in the opposite direction. Last year, Microsoft’s annual work trend index found that 47% of its “employee respondents” said they were “more likely to prioritise family and personal life over work than they were prior to the pandemic”. We now talk about quiet quitting: the art of mentally cutting loose from your job – and, to quote the young American whose TikTok video sent the concept viral, “the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life”. Politicians and journalists fuss and fret over the so-called Great Resignation, the social shift that has seen some people changing jobs in pursuit of better pay and greater wellbeing, while others have embraced early retirement or simply exited the job market.
In France, the tensions that swirl around life, work and politics are being spectacularly highlighted by the revolt against President Macron’s plans to raise the national retirement age. Here in the UK, their most obvious manifestation is a very British backlash against shifting public attitudes that is driven by the political right – Tory MPs and their allies in the press still equate working from home with the scourge of wokeness.
Meanwhile, senior Conservatives pin the blame for our current Brexit-related labour shortages on an entirely imaginary army of malingerers and benefit scroungers, as if the solution lies in shaking out jobcentres and brazenly denying the barriers that sit between paid employment and illness and disability. “We believe work is a virtue,” said Jeremy Hunt in his budget speech, combining his pitch for Aristotelian profundity with a quotation from the millionaire haulier Eddie Stobart: “The only place success comes before work is the dictionary.” The chancellor also recited an aphorism parroted by Tory and Labour politicians for the best part of 30 years: “Those who can work, should.”
The unspoken class element of that kind of rhetoric demands to be called out. As ever, the idle recipients of unearned wealth and inherited fortunes escape any kind of censure. Meanwhile, even if some people are newly au fait with shorter working weeks and flexitime, these look set to remain largely middle-class privileges. For millions of others, the trade-off between work and life continues to fall only one way, not least when it comes to the tensions between employment and caring responsibilities. The Conservatives are still fond of presenting themselves as the party of the family; the truth, as ever, is that millions of people’s roles as mothers, fathers, guardians, carers and all the rest must always come second to pushing them into the grind of paid employment, even if that has no end of human consequences.
The announcements in Hunt’s “back to work” budget contained a particularly vivid example of this, which also highlighted a huge social change that is still overlooked. Fifteen years ago, lone parents – mothers, mostly – who were on the benefit then known as income support were not required to look for paid work until their youngest child left full-time education at either 16 or 18. But towards the end of the New Labour years, against the backdrop of such social reforms as Sure Start, the relevant age was reduced first to 12, then 10, with steps then taken to cut it to seven. And once the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition had taken office, it went down even further.
Now the government is going to effectively bin the remaining “parental easements” in the benefits system. Thanks to changes made in 2017, when their youngest child turns three – three! – “lead carers” who claim universal credit must currently make themselves available for up to 16 hours of work a week and agree to take part in timed “job searches”. And that requirement will now increase to up to 30 hours, a drastic move that will particularly hit lone parents, supposedly facilitated by the government’s proposed expansion of state-funded childcare, although huge question marks hover over whether that childcare exists and what a sudden expansion in entitlements could mean for existing provision. Note also yet another bit of classist sophistry: the fact that Hunt is aiming to bring highly paid people back into the labour force by scrapping the upper limit on pensions savings and thereby showering them with cash – whereas those lower down the social hierarchy are to be kicked back into work under the threat of having their benefits docked.
Last week, I spoke to Kate Andersen, an academic from the University of York who specialises in women’s experiences of work and the benefits system. The government’s plans for parents, she told me, “very much say that your primary contribution in society is to undertake paid work – and if you’re not doing that, you’re a lesser citizen. It really undervalues how important unpaid care is to human flourishing, and the relational values of love involved in care.” This is not, just to be clear, the kind of argument voiced last week by the Tory MP George Eustice, when he talked about women being “biologically wired” for a “natural nurturing role”. In principle, it could just as easily be applied to male caregivers. The point is that in the most fundamental sense, there has to be more to life than paid work.
Andersen sent me excerpts from her interviews with people who had been subject to the kind of compulsory “job search” regimes that the government seems to be set on expanding, spending endless, usually futile hours looking for work and applying for jobs. One quoted an unnamed mother who wanted to emphasise “things that are really important like being able to read with [children] after school and being able to go out and buy them a pair of shoes because you’ve got time. Those things are not seen as important … [but] they are important.”
They really are. So are our responsibilities to older relatives and friends – which, as we confront the realities of an increasingly ageing society, will become equally inescapable. One of the key social questions of the 21st century will be simple: who will have time for caring? In the depths of lockdown, millions of people thought about exactly that issue. The fact that the government is now offering only the cruellest, most class-based of answers speaks volumes about how little they understand the future.