According to the newspapers and the politicians one of the most serious problems facing Britain and much of the developed world today is the presence of large numbers – millions – of people without productive work and with no hope of obtaining it in the near future. The problem is precisely that: a shortage of productive work; it is not the presence of large numbers of people short of the necessities of life. There are such people in the world – far too many of them – but not in the developed countries. There the problem is not that people are starving to death in the streets, it is the absence of enough productive work to keep everybody occupied. And the people concerned, the newspapers and the politicians, and most of the people who interest themselves in social problems, are worried about it.
This is strange, stranger then is sometimes realised. From the time the Old Testament was written, if not before, productive work has been a necessity imposed on humanity and it has been regarded as a curse: “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread.” Throughout recorded history the small minority able to survive without engaging in productive work have been envied, their condition regarded as highly desirable. Now there are, in the developed countries, many millions of people able to live at a standard which is (historically speaking and by comparison with conditions in the backward parts of the world today) rather high than low, and to do so without being obliged to work. And what is the response to this? Is it to take pride in this achievement of our society? It is not. The view of the people concerned, and of nearly everybody else, is that these people are seriously deprived. They have been robbed of “the right to work.” Even those who proclaim that in our society work is exploitation support them in this complaint.
If the attitude were not so widespread one would have to call it perverse. Shortage of food, clothing, shelter, warmth, these are reasonable complaints. To demand a large house, a yacht, a private airplane, a Rolls Royce and a coach and four for every unemployed family might be a bit impractical, but it would make sense. After all, these things are enjoyed by some families who have been unemployed – doing no productive work – ever since an ancestor bought a monastery from Henry VIII. But to complain of being unable to find work!
from Ideological Commentary 10, January 1982.