‘Do what you love’, we are told. But what if ‘what we love’ just isn’t hiring? And what if whoever is hiring just isn’t paying enough to really lead the lifestyle we desire? In short, what do we expect people to get out of ‘ordinary’ jobs?
This is becoming an increasingly relevant question: since 2008, 80% of British job growth has been in below-average-pay sectors such as retail, service and catering, which also require a high degree of repetition. Increasingly such jobs are coming to characterise the economy and to define the opportunities available for those looking for work.
It may be true that some people just love selling clothes or providing customer service over the phone – but we also know that happiness in the workplace comes from taking on work that sits well with your sense of self. When your job consists of repetitive tasks being handed down from above, this is less likely. So for the new workers moving into these jobs, a sense of intrinsic self-fulfillment often just isn’t on the table.
The empowerment argument
Yet, when we talk about addressing unemployment, we still tend to start from the assumption that working will prove equally empowering, regardless of one’s background or job. Indeed, the central moral justification for heavy welfare cuts is that doing so is ultimately empowering for those on welfare. Getting people off benefits and into work, the argument goes, will provide them with “new hope and new responsibility” that will provide a richer source of fulfillment.
I make my living as an anthropologist. But instead of studying the intricacies of tribal life on a far-flung island, I live and work in North London in a neighborhood with a long and vibrant history of migration and mixing, but also one of persistent poverty. The people I work with, then, are in many ways the ideal targets of this government’s ongoing drive to get people off benefits and into work. There are families for whom worklessness stretches across the generations, migrants who rely on benefits to sustain their households and everyone in between.
It’s all too easy to look at this picture and jump to tired conclusions about an entrenched culture of poverty or about greedy and self-serving benefit scroungers and to conclude that they just need a stronger incentive to join the work force – a bit more carrot and, these days, a lot more stick.
But what is striking is that, if you take the time to listen, you’ll find that nearly everyone already places a great deal of value on employment. The issue isn’t that the unemployed don’t value work. It’s that the government’s vision for making work more compelling fails to capture their already-existing values. It’s policy that doesn’t speak to people – but speaks right past them.
Benefits and values
Far from the cushy free-ride depicted in the papers, most of the unemployed and underemployed people I meet talk about doubt, apprehension and struggle. Living on benefits means navigating an unpredictable system of sanctions and interviews and ever changing requirements one must meet in order to maintain one’s benefits whilst also knowing that one’s conditions are subject to change at any moment. And so the things that people come to value are the things that best help them navigate these daily experiences.
For example, the value of family may go beyond simple emotional support and love. If the job centre cuts off your primary income for a month for missing a meeting you never knew about, it may be the short-term loan of an uncle or your mother taking up cooking duties, which gets you through.
Your attachment to your neighborhood may have nothing to do with the desirable amenities of the area and everything to do with much humbler facts – like the translation service at your local community centre, which enables your daughter to invest in her schoolwork, rather than spending all evening helping you translate bills and respond to letters.
Exclusion and insecure futures
Even behaviours that may seem straightforwardly contemptible turn out to be more complex in reality. Surely, if you’re on benefits and struggling to get by, you have no right spending money on luxuries such as a new games system or a fancy new phone? But often, the heavier damages of poverty come not from the realities of daily want but from living as a part of society that insists, loudly and repeatedly, that it has no place for you. And, in response, people’s survival tactics become about responding to this sense of exclusion – about asserting their normalcy and equality so that they can reassure themselves that they have the right to live and work in the same world as everyone else.
Hence, you hear stories of mothers who struggle to feed their families, but who may buy their kids a used phone – a dysfunctional shell of a device that they can simply show-off at school to push back against the bullying and feeling of being left out and left behind – because that’s what it takes to make them feel like they can face the next day. You hear stories of people who start looking into whether, just maybe, it might be possible to cheat the benefits system because it’s just so draining to maintain an erratic schedule at your part-time job, when you’re living in a noisy and cold hostel dorm and your wife is pregnant.
And these are still the exceptions. Most struggle on with their heads down – trying to make it in a system that affords plenty of instability and few breaks. But struggle they do. And through this struggle, one of the central values which emerges is that of time. In an unpredictable world, where one must improvise new tactics to make it through each week, anything which promises a bit more stability is cherished. In knowing that your family will continue to live nearby, or simply that you are a secure council tenant, there is the promise of a foreseeable future.
Making sense of resistance
To understand some of the resistance to current programmes to get people working then, you only need to understand how they threaten this often-delicate sense of a future. Taking a job on a zero-hour contract certainly won’t guarantee you can afford local rents, but it will guarantee that you’ll become responsible for them – and that any spare income you make will be taken up offsetting your housing benefit. Working a retail job may not mean that you have any more income than you currently do, and it may not bring any more respect either, but it will probably mean being able to spend less time supporting your children in an already tough environment.
Importantly, regardless of whether these arguments are objectively true, they are felt to be true. Life on benefits can be tough, and learning to subjectively value permanency and distrust change makes navigating such a life a bit easier. The unemployed are far from valueless – far from the cynical self-serving schemers they are often made out to be. Instead, they have found ways to adapt, to live and to find worth in the world that is theirs at present.
*Farhan Samanani  is doing a PhD in Social Anthropology.