Was work better 40 years ago?

I caught a bit of Newsnight yesterday evening and there was a film on the future of work, comparing it with 40 years ago (it being the anniversary of the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1989). In it, they visited Shirebrook, a mining community that lost its colliery after the miner’s strike and now has Sports Direct’s massive warehouse where the pit once stood.

One of the ex-miner’s interviewed said that things were better 40 years ago because the contract you signed at the pit gave you had security, stable income, sickness benefits and a pension. You knew what to expect, compared with the insecure and unstable employment offered in the Sports Direct warehouse (a prime example of today’s employment practices).

Dominic Raab, Conservative MEP and free marketeer, argued against this. He said people wouldn’t want to go back 40 years, either to do the hard, dirty and dangerous work down the pits or give up the benefits that the liberalisation of our economy had brought. He said you couldn’t just look at pay, you had to look at the huge improvements the market system had brought like lower prices, cheap flights and the internet. 

And he’s almost completely wrong. He is right that you can’t just look at pay but he’s ignored all the really important things about work.

And it’s not just the points made by the ex-miner, powerful though they are. 

Work can give us so much more than a living, it can give us a life. 

Being with our workmates fulfils our need for connection and belonging and can create the deep and lasting friendships that sustain us physically and emotionally. It can give us the opportunity to develop and master skills, to exercise some autonomy over our work and life and it can give us purpose – three things that Daniel Pink tells us are essential to motivation and satisfaction.

So would the people of Shirebrook wind the clock back 40 years and go down the pits once more, to risk life and health to hack coal from underground? Would they forgo the delights the market economy has delivered us over the past 40 years? Would they give up their Sky Sports, cheap food and and clothes, holidays in Spain and cornucopia of offerings on the internet?

I reckon they would. In a heartbeat.

What they would get in return is the security of stable employment, the camaraderie of the fellow workers, the sense of meaning from doing an important job. They would get the social cohesion back in their communities and a feeling that they had a future they could plan for. They would get back their dignity.

These things are priceless.

Of course, we can’t go back 40 years and we can’t open the pits up again given the need to stop using fossil fuels. But we can strive to create work that gives people what they really need and value, something that we did a much better job of 40 years ago for the majority of people.

It’s not just about the pay, it’s about so much more.

Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash

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