Jul 152013

I work hard.  I work at least six hours a day, as well as caring, cooking and poorly-cleaning for a family.

I write this blog first and foremost; have been trying to get paid for it for at least eighteen months.  I’ve invested, foolishly, a lot of savings in this blog.  Partly, because I thought I could make a difference.  Partly, because I simply love writing – in much the same way as you may love breathing.

But it’s not all I do.  I mark online.  I’m giving more and more video-conferenced English classes too – and thinking about it, in a by-the-by sort of way for a moment, it’s funny how teachers like myself spend their lives trying to resist doing what they’re good at (I was, after all, a full-time language trainer for most of my adult life when in Spain); how teachers like myself look to be writers, editors, homemakers or simply taxi-driver-parents – anything but the teachers they surely should accept is their lot.

I’m telling you all this because of another blogpost by Chris Dillow.  In it, he says:

[…] If it’s rational for someone to settle for less than their (perceived) perfect match in the dating market, it should therefore be reasonable for someone to settle for less than their dream job. And, in fact, millions of us do so. […]

He goes on to argue:

[…] There is, across the western world, an excess supply of labour. Some would-be workers cannot get a match at all. So, if it’s rational for everyone else to settle for less than they’d like, shouldn’t it also be rational for the least attractive potential workers to settle for not getting a job at all? Just as our friend says: “don’t chase Alison King; you’re only making yourself miserable wanting what you can’t have”, shouldn’t we also tell the least productive workers: “don’t make yourself miserable wanting a job that isn’t there”?

Many years ago, in 1999, I lost my teaching job of the time.  I waited for a couple of years, retraining – looking to do something “exciting” instead.  I finally alighted on the idea of online publisher and did a Publishing Master in Madrid.  I was trying to be imaginative and different in my pursuit of a totally alternative way forward.

Everyone at the time told me: retrain as a teacher; get into the Spanish system; get qualified for institutional life.

I didn’t want that.

I wanted the gently megalomaniac tinge of selling culture across frontiers.

In the end, that didn’t work out either; they were right and I was wrong.  I even got to the point where I believed Microsoft and the American government were interfering with my Internet connection and data, especially as I spent most of my time vigorously trashing them in a blog – no longer online – on the subject, mainly, of the Iraq War.

So it was that I was judged paranoid and medicated.  That was in 2003.  How wrong I was to sustain such a falsehood.  How wrong we now know I must have been.


And ten years later, after a year of miserable income (you can tell I’ve just done my tax return), of digging deep into savings and many family disagreements, I’ve returned to the idea of doing what I always did well all along: teaching, one-to-one, on a personalised and personalising level.

To use Chris’s terminology, I’ve finally – ultimately – settled for second best.

But whilst he concludes the following …

But let’s be clear. Anyone who seriously wanted to improve the well-being of the nation would stop prating about “changing the culture” to encourage people to seek work, and do the precise opposite.

… I would say something slightly different.  I would say what we need is a different education system.  An education system capable of managing our expectations cruelly.

A short anecdote, if you will, to explain what I mean.

My daughter has just started her first ever work-placement.  She’s never worked for a boss before: to date, all she’s had in her life of that sort of thing have been teachers, parents and elder brothers.  She’s a very intelligent young soul: she taught herself how to read Spanish; she taught herself how to edit videos; most recently, she taught herself how to draw extremely elaborate sketches of magnificent proportion using little more than pencil, paper and hours of dedicated leisure time.

She is a born learner.  She is as bright as a button.  She knows her mind – and is utterly unable to suffer fools gladly.

She doesn’t get on well with all her teachers, but when she does, she knows exactly why – and exactly how to explain what the process involved happens to be.  She will always provide evidence to back up any opinion she has.

She is the most evidence-based fifteen-year-old I know.

Sometimes it’s terrifying.

She is most definitely a young woman of a consumer age.  Her expectations on how life should function are high: software shouldn’t be difficult to use; gadgets shouldn’t mess her around; activities shouldn’t be boring; life shouldn’t lead her to waste a single second of her time.

Now put her in her first work-placement: the corporation in question is well run, professional, correct and welcoming.  Yet her upbringing, her consumer and empowered end-user mentality, means that a day’s worth of shelf-stacking really hasn’t met with too much of a thumbs-up on her part at all.  Couple that with an induction process where the computer software kept on crashing, and we can see why a habitual iPod and smartphone user might question the validity of real-world bespoke in-house environments like these.

We can see why someone with such high consumer expectations should begin to wonder if the world of work isn’t an example of second-class citizenship.

And so we return to Chris’s conclusion.  My alternative take?  Maybe what’s really to blame here – what the current British Coalition government is really in the game of effecting – are the high expectations that not only our consumer society raises but also our blessed and empowering education system.

Yes.  Exactly that.  In their pursuit of land-grabbing markets across the globe, corporations have taught us all to “believe in better”.  Too much so, in fact.  Too much for the jobs the future will offer us.  As automation takes away the need for specialisation and skill, all we have left for the most highly educated market of working-people in history are the drudge jobs which, in truth, my daughter’s work-placement represents.

An objective and brutally pragmatic examination of the country’s needs in a post-globalisation era would suggest we need an education system capable of managing and communicating the following expectations:

  1. Aspiration for everyone is unrealistic.
  2. Most people will have to settle for second, third or umpteenth best.
  3. Working poverty must become the norm.
  4. A staggered – where not staggering – employment path is inevitable.
  5. Illness will strike us all down one day – with financial implications of a most serious kind.
  6. Software will not work to our benefit where government is involved.
  7. Education will not improve people’s job prospects.
  8. Paid education will not improve people’s job prospects.
  9. A meritocracy is a chimera – always has been, always will be.
  10. Young people like my daughter will only experience excellence if they can afford to buy a new gadget.
  11. Every other experience will involve severe and inevitable disappointment.
  12. And as long as our education system continues to encourage our youth to aspire, our youth will inevitably suffer sadly – and badly – in a cruel delusion of richer people’s making.

Now just look at all of this.  I look at it myself.  I realise that the last year where I have frittered away precious savings on silly virtual mutterings has essentially, probably, more than likely been a middle-aged man’s final workshy-riven flailings.  Not workshy in the sense of hating work; rather, in the sense of being shy of the kind of work that requires you to resignedly settle for umpteenth best.

If you look at the above list of twelve terrible expectations, you will I am sure realise that practically all of them are currently being re-engineered by our government.  All twelve, in one way or another, form part of their shopping-list of actions: these are the remade expectations they’re looking to impose on our next and most malleable generation.

The best-trained, cleverest and most ingenious generation of young people we have had the privilege to witness … condemned to a life of shelf-stacking and stock-taking by a world which pursues excellence only in the area of MP3 players; a world which is unable to see the virtues of expanding the envelope of life itself; a world which only measures achievement in terms of micro-managed productivity worksheets and tick-box exercises various.

A world where drudge and political fudge replace the beauty of splendidly engineered imaginations.

That’s what the Coalition government has been about all along.

That’s why I have to confess: in a way, yes, I have been a workshy man.

Jan 112013

Yesterday, on the back of an excellent post published by James Firth describing the upsides of shirking and laziness, I in turn said this:

And thinking on this fearful government campaign against the concept of shirking as James would prefer to understand it – a concept we could just as easily describe as idle thoughts, imagination and deliberately unfocussed creative and lateral thinking in general – makes me wonder if our government doesn’t have a couple of prejudices driving it:

  1. Thinking idly must be the preserve of the idle rich – because it’s one of the most sure-fire ways of getting richer.
  2. Thinking idly must be the preserve of the already powerful – because, as one sure-fire way of understanding how the world really works, it’s bound to lead the plebs to reconsider their assigned positions in society.

What I didn’t realise was that there is science behind what is happening.  Watch this video, first – it’s only ten minutes long and will change your life for sure.


As you will see if you follow my instructions to the letter, unthinking work responds positively to the attractions of monetary payments.  They dangle a larger carrot in front of you – or threaten you with a larger stick for not working harder – and, verily, you end up working harder.  But when it comes to using your brain to think, more money actually makes you perform worse!  Time and time again, the data proves the latter.  An astonishing – and apparently counter-intuitive – conclusion.

Are human beings, in reality then, hard-wired socialists by nature?

It’s certainly a thought, anyhow.


Naturally enough, this got me thinking.  I worked for about seven years in a large banking corporation.  My experience in one department there led me from relatively thinking tasks at the beginning to evermore desultory and meaningless data entry six years on.  The trends were absolutely clear: the dumbing down of processes and their corresponding procedures was an instinct which was manifestly part and parcel of corporate life.  The question was: why?

I always assumed it was an urge to reduce training costs, limit the impact of staff turnover and make it impossible for any one worker to be in control of sufficient intellectual property which a move into another company might prejudice.

The dumber the processes the workforces have to carry out, the fewer of those processes – and their value-adding implications – they can take away with them out of malice or pique, for example.

But in the light of what we’ve just seen in the RSA video above, it would seem that there is an intuitive (maybe even conscious) conspiracy sustaining itself to take out of a thinking society such as ours – trained for decades, as it has been, in the constructive cocoon of compulsory education to cogitate better and more profoundly than ever before – all the relevant and value-adding opportunities to use our cognitive and self-motivating side to be precisely that.

So instead of substituting a stick-and-carrot system designed to make simple and repetitive tasks function at least minimally well with an alternative system which would fit exactly with our thoughtful and educated latterday brains, large and small companies everywhere have decided – whether deliberately or instinctively – to jettison all attempts to take advantage of our minds and, instead, return us to the drudge of manager-driven wage slavery.

In a thinking society, where almost everyone has been taught how to imagine, create and laterally devise, this is why they’re dumbing down all the processes: it’s a power thing, after all.  A desire to keep a hold of those old hierarchies.  A need they have to maintain the control that externally motivated work has over the worker bees it commands.

And what’s even more curious is that as we continue to find ourselves carrying out more and more meaningless tasks in our work time, in our leisure time we’re blogging and videoing and writing to our heart’s content.  What’s more, with mostly very little monetary reward.

Whilst we’re pushed towards evermore robotic work experiences, our need to think and cogitate cannot be suppressed.  Just as, in fact, our democracy is removed from our politicking, so our desire to search out and practise democratic process moves into online and other virtual manifestations.

However hard you try to remove freedom of thought and cognitive opportunities from human beings and their daily experiences, you are bound, I think we can all agree, to ultimately fail.

And whilst we humans are pushed towards – and back into – meaningless work, and whilst our robots become cleverer and more ingenious, no wonder our politicians feel the need to criticise the thinkers: to criticise them roundly, describe thinking as shirking – and let it be understood that those who wonder are wasting their time.

After all, imagine how difficult it might be to rule over a nation of people far cleverer than you.

A nation of people who thought stuff without the petty reward of the only thing that separated you – with your concentrated wealth – from them.

A nation of people who didn’t believe stuff in accordance with what you gave them or withheld.

A nation of people who did what was right because doing what is right is what keeps them alive.

That, in conclusion, is what we now have in the United Kingdom.

Too many clever voters who think better in their spare time than their leaders are now managing in their paid time.

Curious, isn’t it?  Curious how historical hierarchies always seem to fight to reassert themselves.

Feb 182012

There’s been much movement on Twitter and other social media over the past couple of days as Tesco and other companies have admitted to using workfare (more here).  To be fair to Tesco, public outrage does seem to have had an impact as it is now asking the government to ensure any such schemes become entirely voluntary.  But voluntary is as voluntary does.  And the principle of workfare, once established, may quite easily continue to be used against the vulnerable and unemployed in our society – whether, in principle, it is considered voluntary or not.

It would seem, therefore, that slavery – of a kind – is returning to our shores.  Which makes the website Slavery Footprint evermore relevant. Take the test and compare your result.  For my standard of living, for the gadgets I’ve bought, for the few clothes and shoes I own, they calculate that at least forty people across this 21st century world are currently working in conditions of slavery.  That is to say, I inhabit the society I do – as I do – because forty other people find themselves existing in a living hell on earth.

Which brings me to my final point tonight.  Do you remember the story last year about the supermarket bullies and how they were driving farmers and suppliers out of business through abuse of their monopolistic positions?  Well, it did occur to me this morning that what we really need is yet another piece of ethical and informative labelling on our food products.

No.  Not more data telling us how everything we like is bad for us.  Rather, a percentage indication of how much of the final cost to the consumer went to the farmers and suppliers.  This would then allow us to determine – in a Fair Trade-like kind of way – where we would be best leaving our hard-earned cash on that inevitably weekly shop.

If slavery – of a kind – must return to our shores in this and other ways, at least let us fight back with the best tool we have to hand: a free and just flow of consumer information for the benefit of the whole supply chain which finds itself supposedly at our service.

In fact, it does also occur to me – in the light of the recent workfare stories – that we might have to add yet another piece of labelling to our already overloaded products and services: the differential paid by the company in question between its lowest and highest-remunerated personnel.

But more of that anon, I think …

Jan 302012

On Saturday I argued:

I do wonder if the crisis isn’t rather more profound, mind.  What if the deficit isn’t really financial?  I mean obviously there’s a shortage of political will to spend our way out of encroaching crisis, as perhaps we have preferred to do so on previous occasions – but, in reality, perhaps the problem is actually that we simply no longer have enough jobs to go around.  No mystery here – nor a particularly perceptive remark.  But, nevertheless, maybe – in the circumstances – worth revisiting.  As the past century progressed, automation struck in more and more professions: we now learn by ourselves; medicate ourselves; bank by ourselves; book our holidays by ourselves; even get to the point where we contemplate the possibility of legally representing ourselves.  And maybe – just maybe – all the aforementioned just goes to show that the balance generated by our economic structures between jobs and consumers is suddenly and irrevocably tipping in favour of the latter.

That is to say, our latterday Western economies – as they are set up and structured these days (and for some reason my unpractised eye is totally unable to fathom) – require far more of us to play the role of passive consumers than that of productive workers.

Meanwhile, this terrifying paragraph (from page 31 of this TUC-discussion .pdf) (the bold is mine) only serves to confirm my unhappy and inexpert intuition:

[…] The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast that labour’s share of the output of the economy will have fallen by four percentage points between 2009 and 2016. On present policies and trends, it is unlikely to recover this lost ground beyond that year. As in the past, it will be those in the lower half of the pay distribution that are most likely to be bearing this fall. The gains from recovery, when it comes, are likely to continue to be unevenly divided. This means a continuation of the trend of the last 30 years, with those on middle and low incomes likely to face a continued shrinking in their combined share of the nation’s annual output. Indeed, TUC analysis has shown that the amount paid to employees in wages in 2011 was £60bn less than would have been the case had wages continued to rise at the same rate as in 1978. Our growing wage gap is significant.

All I can see, then, and for various reasons, is that the way we have engineered our economies (whether consciously or otherwise) – both in relation to the forces that operate to drive them as well as in relation to the very human instincts that underlie multiple intra- and inter-company decision-making processes – has meant everything significant in such economic activity is fully taken care of except its ability to generate sustainably plentiful and quality jobs.  The free markets do work after all – we get millions of iPads for half the price a desktop cost five years ago; business waste is eliminated year on year by good businesses using total quality management strategies; and even faraway developing countries out there get to share in some of the progress this all supposedly implies.

But jobs, quality jobs, quality work-life balances, seem to be becoming evermore distant as realistic prospects on the horizon.  In the end, we as workers are nothing more than those suppliers at the very end and bottom of the food chain that is Western civilisation.  What else could we expect now than to be squeezed forever and always?

As well as blamed for losing our jobs – when the blame clearly lies with the system, its parameters and awfully limiting ground rules.

If only we had an ISO quality mark to define the ability of a company to generate those plentiful and quality jobs I mention above.  Something we could take into account when we signed a contract or made a purchasing commitment. 

An idea, don’t you think? 

An idea at the very least.

Whether a good idea … whether sufficiently groundbreaking … well, that’s a separate matter …

Perhaps not for me to say.

What I do know, however, is that our issue most definitely isn’t with the workshy but, rather, with an economic system which designs and makes new machines far more efficiently than it does new tasks, jobs and roles.  And in the light of such a reality, there really should exist no government out there honestly able to declaim the problem lies with workforces not wanting to work. 

For it’s simply not true.  And to say otherwise is to tell monumental porkies.