From education to employment

OECD and the British Work Ethic?

New research from OECD suggests shows that Britain actually has the highest employment rate of the G8 countries, bettering that of France, Canada, Japan, Italy, Germany, the USA and Russia.

According to the report, Britain’s employment rate stands at around 72%, and it also has the second best “inactivity” record. This should come as no surprise to Britain, which as we all know, is a country that lives to work and works to live.

“Work” must be considered differently to “employment”. “Employment” implies the state of having a job, with sufficient (or nearly sufficient) income to survive on without significant state welfare. “Work” implies the actual act of working: the hours, the traveling, time management, orders from the boss and so on. Britain is employed, that much is evident from the research, but it also works hard, much harder than it gives itself credit.


While a strong work ethic is usually healthy, it becomes counter-productive when it starts to take over: work is done to enable living, but it is not a substitute for living. People usually separate work from the rest of their lives in the same way that sleep is discounted from your usual life description, but even that distinction becomes hard when a person spends more of their awake life either going to, coming from or at work than they do “living”. The description therefore needs a rethink: work is life, or equally applicable, life is work.

“Work” can be split roughly into two categories. The first is necessary work, that which a person does to have enough money to eat, travel, watch tv etc. The other is compulsive work. In this case, the worker pursues a career in search of some greater goal, or just merely for the sake of it; the everyday requirements of living are not an immediate problem, but the stresses, successes and developments of their job are entirely distracting. The necessary worker works purely to make money to exist on, with work merely being a necessary evil to that end, a kind of penance that is paid to earn the right to exist.

The compulsive worker also works for money (usually larger sums than the necessary worker) but is also driven by abstract aspirations, such as career success, power, authority, the sensation of being important etc. In either case, work is the main ethic of the day, be it a voluntary undertaking or a grudging sigh before entering the office for another day that was just like yesterday but slightly closer to payday.

All Work and No Play”¦

Work comes first in a modern Brit’s life, with no siestas or July 4th to get in the way, and in this way defines our existence. The question “what do you do” does not simply mean “where do you work” but “what kind of person are you? Are you winning life, or have you been relegated to the back of the pack? Is it ok for me to be seen talking to you?” What we used to call “life” is squeezed in between work and sleep like mortar around a brick; you do not adapt your work schedule to sort out your family, you mold your family to fit your more important work-life.

This way, the kids are picked up by their unemployed uncle on Tuesdays, and the ageing parents are booked for non-consecutive Sundays. Shopping is squeezed into the lunch break, social life remains on hiatus until 6 (with the exception of covertly-sent emails, inaudibly whispered monologues and for the truly reckless, msn messenger) and bodily functions are best left until you get home.

With everyone bending daily to the work-ethic, it is ironic that so many people would rather do without it. Bank holidays are strategically placed to catch those stressed workers just before they turn crazy and show up to work with a rifle. Any excuse for a day off, any excuse”¦ the kindest mercy is a bout of some non-threatening disease for a couple of days, or the death of a distant and barely acknowledged relative, anything to wrest a day “off” from work. Really, it should be called a day “on”, that is, a day when you can actually “log on” to life; time spent at work is time when your life is “logged off”, and the simple screensaver displays its lonely message: “— will be back soon”¦”

Busy Busy

There is no doubt that much of Britain’s present power comes from its busy, busy workers. History clearly shows the economic value of a hard day’s work, voluntary or otherwise. In terms of economic success for their organisers, Soviet five-year plans, Chinese sweatshops and even the Slave Trade are all brilliant methods that bring results for those holding the whip: work works. However, as these examples show, sometimes it is better to ease off from the work-ethic, but then it is not always easy to do so: life for the necessary worker is as impossible as that of a prisoner of Stalin’s gulags, with the loaded gun instead replaced by hard, economic need. But if you must work to live, why kill yourself working?

No matter how many posters there are on the workplace wall, and no matter how loud your shirt or sniggeringly humorous your computer backdrop, work is no substitute for life. That is why we describe people who think nothing but work as having no life, that is, no thoughts, opinions, desires, interests or even needs outside those of “The Job.” Trying to create a kind of pseudo-life around work doesn”t work either; you may be eating, but a “business lunch” is still work. No matter how well the day is going, wouldn”t you rather be somewhere else?

The answer to reclaiming “life” does not lie in banishing work, though; there is some dignity in labour. The answer lies in the approach. Use your time off. Conserve your energy so that when you finish for the day, you do not just get home, pass out and wake up in time to leave again. Do not dismiss dreams and opinions as “silly”. If wanting to go to Australia or learning to play the harpsichord or playing “it” with your kids is silly, then what do you call spending eight to nine hours a day watching the clock, fantasizing about your lunch and training yourself to recognize the sound of the boss” footsteps? Remember to live. There has been a spate of publications in recent years listing things to do and see in your lifetime, “1001 places to see before you die”, “101 things to do before you”re thirty”, and so on. “Work” is not one of them.

Daniel Wallis

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