George Walford: The End of Work (8)

When comparing present structural unemployment with the position in the past it is easy to overlook the extent to which society is already able to support its people without their all needing to work. In 1879 the establishment of universal education took all children in Britain off what used to be known as the labour market. Since 1938 the school leaving age has gone up from fourteen to sixteen; assuming a previous working life of fifty years that alone reduces the working population by four per cent and the unemployment figures accordingly. Much larger numbers now move from school to spend three years or more at university, with a corresponding reduction in the numbers seeking employment. Where people used to work as long as they were physically able to do so, retirement at sixty-five is now almost universal and earlier retirement increasingly common.

Government ministers have long given up predicting any turning point in unemployment. Even Neil Kinnock is now suggesting that one of the solutions to the problem lies in taking people out of the jobs market, by lowering the retirement age or by other means. (Sunday Times 7 July 85)

If compulsory education were to be abolished, public financing of higher education stopped and old-age pensions ended, so that the whole of the population without independent means were to be numbered as either employed or unemployed, only then would we have a fair comparison with, say, 1840. Only then would it appear how many people are now being supported without needing to work. We have moved farther toward the end of work than we sometimes think.

JULIE BURCHILL writes in the Sunday Times of 15 September of pop concerts held in support of “the right to work.” The article reads like one of those calculated pieces, provocative but carefully inoffensive, designed to give a newspaper “character” and so promote its sales. (The sort of thing IC does so well). Burchill points out that most of the pop singers taking part in these concerts would never for a moment consider doing the jobs they are demanding on behalf of their listeners; most of them, she says, have never done a day’s paid work in their lives. This by itself says something about the alleged universality of the demand for work, but perhaps pop stars are exceptional. Another point the article makes indicates the attitudes not only of the singers but also – and more importantly – of their audiences. It points out that the songs that make their way on to the charts are about recreation, love and dancing, not about work.

WE HAVE BEEN reading an account of the Massacre of Glencoe. Since that event an aura of dislike has hung around the name Campbell among the more historically-minded Scots, and we have only now appreciated the reason. It is because, having had an opportunity to exterminate the McDonalds, they failed to complete the job.

from Ideological Commentary 21, November 1985.