Getting ‘stuck in’ to employment

Getting ‘stuck in’ employment

Recently, Rodney Hide related his experiences as a manual labourer, doing casual jobs for a builder, digger driver and retaining wall builder.

Hide drew a lesson from his experience about the motivation of the unemployed. Basically, it amounted to the conclusion that unemployment would vanish if only the unemployed weren’t so picky and just got “stuck in“.

I had a similar experience 30 years ago. Unlike Hide, I drew lessons about the nature of employment itself. So maybe it’s time to take Hide’s advice and ‘get stuck in’ to employment.

In Rodney Hide’s recent experience, Roger the digger driver described the responses of most new workers to the work he offered them:

20 per cent of those who work for him don’t come back after the first morning tea, another 20 per cent disappear after lunch, and another 20 per cent get their mums to ring the following morning to say Johnny won’t be coming to work.

The remaining 40 per cent work with him for the rest of their lives.

The lessons Rodney Hide drew from these experiences were clear:

When I was a politician I was supposed to pretend sympathy for people without a job. The truth is I never had much. I always figured there’s work to be done for anyone prepared to get stuck in. I now know that’s true. I got a job pushing a wheelbarrow and swinging a hammer. Why can’t the so-called unemployed? We all know why. They’re too picky. The jobs don’t suit. It’s a bit cold. It’s a bit wet. It’s a bit hard.

And this was his conclusion:

There would be no unemployed people if everyone took the first job offered and got stuck in. If they got stuck in, they would love the work. They would then be offered a multitude of jobs and could pick and choose what they wanted to do.

It turns out, then, that simply getting “stuck in” is the solution. It’s all just a matter of motivation.

I also think it’s about motivation – but not in the way Hide, and no doubt many others, think it is. I think it’s something about what the employment relation – and the prospect of it – does to motivation.

As I said at the start, I had a work experience that was not unlike Hide’s but from which I drew very different lessons about the nature of work in our world.

Thirty years ago I’d just finished a science honours degree and was doing my OE in London.

I got a job – through a temp agency – working as a kitchen hand in the ground floor cafeteria kitchen at Taylor Woodrow’s Head Office in Hangar Lane, London. There were a lot of hungry office workers in the building, just how many I’m not sure. But they made for a lot of washing up.

My first day was chaos. Pots and pans came at me in the kitchen like a steel tsunami. Custard and gravy slops competed with the soapy water on the shiny concrete floor to make a near-frictionless working surface underfoot.

An Aussie with MS was the main chef and a young West Indian Londoner was the pastry chef. Luckily for me they had a sense of humour. But that was partly because they were used to the chaos as the kitchen had had a series of kitchen hands, none of whom lasted more than two weeks, so I was told. Most barely lasted a day.

I stayed there for three months and only left to continue travelling. They wanted to take me on more permanently.

By the second day at work I had the process so well organised that when the chefs came to me to ask for a particular pot – fully expecting it to be buried somewhere in an unwashed pile – I could just p0int them to the shelves where the pots were stacked and where the pot they needed to reuse already sat, clean as a whistle.

To say they were wide-eyed was an understatement. I may not have been perfect but in their eyes I was the kitchen hand from heaven.

But where did I really come from?

My motivation was high because I was on my OE – from New Zealand – and I needed the work to fund what was otherwise the freest and most exciting experience of my life.

I was also university-educated. That may have helped with the ability to stand back, look at the workspace and process and see how I could organise it better. It was a problem in need of a solution – not a job.

But, just as importantly, a university education also meant that each day when I walked into the bottom floor of that monolithic building in the middle of a city throbbing with noise, dirt and traffic I knew, without even having to be aware of it, that I wouldn’t have to pass through them for the rest of my life.

If that’s where I came from, where did my predecessors (and presumably successors) in the job come from?

From what I could gather they were locals and usually – but not always – young people in their first few years out of school. They had to use the temp agency because the only work available to them was a succession of temporary jobs. Full-time jobs were thin on the ground and casual work was littered about like ripped up bits of fish and chip paper blowing around London.

Like me, though, they also knew that they wouldn’t be walking through those doors every day for the rest of their lives – instead they would be walking through dozens, maybe hundreds, of such doors to do much the same kinds of jobs before their work-life was done.

This is the reality – rather than the nirvana – of being employed for many people. Then again, maybe it is ‘nirvana‘ – “the extinction of desire and individual consciousness” and “a place or state of oblivion to care, pain, or external reality“.

The very idea of employment – selling your labour for wages or salaries – is so much the supposedly nurturing sea we swim in that it’s hard to believe what a long history of ‘bad press’ it’s had.

Wage slavery‘ – as it came to be called by critics of selling labour – was linked to a loss of freedom by Cicero as long ago as Ancient Rome: “whoever gives his labour for money sells himself and puts himself in the rank of slaves“.

[Oddly, my first encounter with the term ‘wage slavery’ came not from some dissident, radical pamphlet but from a property investment book I first read back in the early ’90s – it began with a declamation about the soul-withering effects of remaining a ‘wage slave’. It seems that at least some in the business community don’t perceive employment as delivering the chance to get ‘stuck in’ – more like a lifetime’s captivity.]

Almost 2,000 years after Cicero, here in New Zealand, a recent survey claimed that:

Unemployed Kiwis have a better overall level of wellbeing than “disengaged” employees, according to consulting company Gallup’s global wellbeing finder.

Some 72 per cent of New Zealanders are actively disengaged in the workforce, with 59 per cent of disengaged employees behaving poorly with family and friends after a stressful day’s work.

Read that again: being employed but “actively disengaged” is worse for your personal (subjective) well-being – and the well-being of those around you, it would seem – than being unemployed. And, according to the survey, most employed New Zealanders are actively disengaged.

Yet, isn’t it well-known that being employed is far better than being unemployed? It might be well-known but it’s not that simple. Employment comes in different shapes and sizes and in different quality as, believe it or not, this – slightly dated – Treasury paper argues:

It can be concluded that all of these studies consistently suggest that “bad” or unsatisfactory employment is no better for a person’s psychological well-being than having no job at all.

Here’s another Gallup worldwide survey (‘Good jobs linked to Higher Wellbeing’) well worth considering:


And here’s the summary table for ‘Advanced Economies’ (which presumably would include New Zealand):


Worldwide, being in full-time employment is better than the other employment options, including ‘unemployment’.

There’s no inclusion here of those who are not employed, but a telling finding is that “The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index in the U.S. has found that business owners have the highest wellbeing of all working Americans.” So, it’s not the ‘wage slaves’ who have the highest well-being.

But, at 29% ‘thriving’ that still leaves 71% either ‘struggling’ or ‘suffering’, which is not a great advertisement for employment (see here for how these categories were derived). Even in ‘advanced economies’ ‘thriving’ people are only just over half of the full-time employed, at 52%.

That means, of course, that in ‘non-advanced economies’ – which include much of the world’s population, the percent ‘thriving’ in full-time employment will be considerably less than 29%.

Notice, too, that the most thriving occurs in stable, full-time employment – “Good jobs” as the Gallup article labels them. By implication, casualisation, part-time work (when full-time is wanted), short-term contracts, reduction in work conditions and union power ( which can provide at least some sense of personal power and autonomy over one’s work) all likely lead to less ‘thriving’. This is consistent with the Treasury paper cited above.

None of this should be surprising, given the findings of the 1978 ‘Whitehall Study‘ by Michael Marmot, and the 1991 follow-up Whitehall II Study (summarised in this booklet and another follow-up study here). The studies found that a social gradient exists in risk of “heart disease, some cancers, chronic lung disease, gastrointestinal disease, depression, suicide, sickness absence, back pain and general feelings of ill-health“.

In short, those lower down the hierarchy had worse health outcomes. Contrary to popular myth, it is the messengers in a large organisation, rather than the top executives, who are most likely to die of heart attacks. In summary,

The Whitehall II study has shown evidence that the way work is organised, the work climate, social influences outside work, influences from early life, in addition to the health behaviours listed above all contribute to the social gradient in health. These lead to the uncomfortable (for some) finding that inequalities in health cannot be divorced from inequalities in society. The inescapable conclusion is that to address inequalities in health it is necessary both to understand how social organisation affects health and to find ways to improve the conditions in which people work and live.

Workplaces are hierarchical, from the owner (‘boss’) down. But the important point to notice is that employment itself is a ‘social gradient’ with the employer on top and the employee below.

If you don’t believe that and believe, instead, that employment is simply a contract between social equals then give a moment’s thought to the rhetoric around employers as ‘job creators’, ‘wealth creators’ or – in Randian OTT fashion – society’s ‘Atlases’.

Employment involves selling your time and labour to someone else so that they can get done what they want to get done – not what you want to get done. In that very clear sense, it is the renting of your autonomy and control over your own body and behaviour. Debatably, it could be argued that the renting is done voluntarily but that doesn’t change the relationship or the consequences for people.

And there’s a final irony to the defence of employment as an institution.

Humans have a particular form of evolved sociality. A good label would be ‘autonomous/individualistic cooperators’. We are, that is, a species whose cooperativity is based on the building blocks of autonomous individuals. But, in hunter gatherer societies, as psychologist Darcia Navaraez puts it,

band members have a personal autonomy which is the opposite of the individualism in the West. In the West, autonomy means being self-contained and on your own. In the band, autonomy is relational-the freedom to take initiative in joint and practical activities.

She cites Tim Ingold,

“The Western individual is a self-contained, rational subject, locked within the privacy of a body, standing against the rest of society consisting of a an aggregate of other such individuals, and competing with them in the public arena for the rewards of success. Relationships in this arena are characterized by their anonymity–that is by the absence of direct, intersubjective involvement. They are brittle, contingent, and transient affairs. By the same token, the autonomy of the individual is given from the start, prior to his or her entry into any social relationships at all.

“For hunter gatherers, by contrast, the dichotomy between private and public domains, respectively of self and society, has no meaning. Every individual comes into being as a center of agency and awareness within an unbounded social environment which provides sustenance, care, company, and support.

There is a freedom and fluidity in the hunter gatherer approach but it arises within the social group and is intimately bound up with it. Contrast that with the average place of employment (notwithstanding ‘good’ employers, especially in small businesses). Within it where’s the “the freedom to take initiative in joint and practical activities“?

Like Rodney Hide’s sledgehammer on the building site, the institution of employment slams repeatedly against the possibility of just the kind of personal autonomy and individualism for which we are designed – and I thought right-wingers like Hide were all for individual autonomy?

It’s no wonder, then, that New Zealand workers are disengaged – they’re “stuck in” employment.

This entry was posted in Economics, Freedom, Human Nature, Human Wellbeing, Labour, New Zealand Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Getting ‘stuck in’ to employment

  1. just saying says:

    An excellent counter to the prevailing spin. I wish more people would listen.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi just saying,

      Thanks for the compliment.

      One interesting thing about employment is that people speak most favourably about it when the social characteristics of a particular job are less and less like an employment relation – ‘the boss takes notice of what I say’, ‘it feels like we’re all a team of equals’, ‘I get a lot of autonomy over my work’, etc., etc.. That should give us a bit of a clue that people want far more out of working than just being an employee fulfilling a contractual obligation – an obligation which, by definition, cedes considerable decision making power over the work day to someone else.

      In fact, the only comment I’ve heard about the advantages of being ‘just an employee’ is that you have no responsibility! Now, what do the right say about the importance of inculcating personal responsibility in people??? The employment relation is a very poor method for achieving that end. Selling your labour puts it under the control of others, which is not great practice for being autonomous and taking responsibility for your own actions.

      Trying to generate autonomy out of employment is like trying to promote vegetarianism through a sausage sizzle.

  2. There was a grotesquely fascinating interview with Alan Gibbs on the radio this afternoon; he seemed to have a similar attitude as Mr Hide. In summary, it’s this belief that if they can do it then anyone can. The disconnect with reality required to hold such beliefs is amazing.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Yes, Armchair Critic, there’s something incredibly slippery about the way that some successful people like to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to their success and others’ relative lack of it.

      On the one hand, they want to claim that their success is all down to their own ‘attitude’, their get-stuck-in and get-up-and-go perseverance, etc. and, therefore, they deserve the rewards. They also often like to claim that unequal outcomes and individual differences are ever-present and cannot be expunged from social reality.

      Yet, on the other hand, ‘anyone can do it’, there’s no excuse for not being successful, there are no fundamental differences between people, etc..

      I don’t think they want to face the obvious fact that there must be a reason for differences between people, both in terms of personal differences (‘attitude’, ‘motivation’, etc.) and in terms of outcomes (which can depend on circumstances, ‘environment’ and the like).

      Instead of facing up to the fact that differences between people must have causes, they just invoke differences when it’s useful for them to do so, and deny them when they are ‘inconvenient truths’.

  3. Pingback: Key’s approach won’t work “over time” | The Political Scientist

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