Employment: the disappearing dignity in labour

In an energised speech to Indian-Australians during his first visit to Australia three years ago, Narendra Modi said one of the defining features of Western success was the dignity accorded to ordinary work, even the dirty or low paid.

The statement carried special significance coming from a former tea seller who rose to lead the world’s largest democracy, one historically rooted in the institutionalised hierarchy of caste.

But this long-term characteristic of Anglosphere success may be in decline.

It can be measured by the dramatic growth in disability, the high rates of youth unemployment and the relative stability of the participation rate despite rising numbers of working women.

The disability pension is received by 800,000 people and costs taxpayers $17 billion a year. Its outlays have grown by 6 per cent on average per year over the past decade, according to government figures, well in advance of inflation and population growth.

The most recent census figures show growth in jobs and the lower unemployment rate is partly due to the spending associated with the National Insurance Disability Scheme, which helped add 160,000 jobs.

One third of youth, defined as those aged 15-24, are either unemployed or underemployed, according to a 2017 report titled “Generation Stalled”.

While there are many contributing factors, one factor is the stigma attached to ordinary work, especially for a generation of youth primed for aspiration and success.

My field of mental health has contributed. In an internationally cited study published in 2011, a team from the Australian National University followed more than 7000 people over seven years. They found that jobs only improved mental health if they were of a certain quality. Those considered demoralising worsened subjective wellbeing.

The lead author, Peter Butterworth, said the study “runs counter to a common belief that any job offers psychological benefits over the demoralising effects of unemployment”.

Social workers have made reference to this study in patients I have attempted to return to work. This is despite the short-term nature of happiness studies or subjective reports of mental health, most of which lack context or any indication of the long-term benefit of overcoming short-term adversity.

It is part of a trend that views work as useful only for its monetary benefit, as a marker of status or as an expression of authentic identity. This contributes to a view that money received from welfare is no different to money earned from paid work.

The declining cultural significance of Christianity may be a factor, given its philosophy of the essential significance of every individual irrespective of their economic value.

University education

The socialist sanctification of the manual worker, so essential to the labour movements of the 20th century, has been diluted in parallel with the decline of such jobs, either through automation or outsourcing. The most recent census data found a 24 per cent decline in manufacturing workers over the last five years.

The larger proportion of the population with a university education, an increase by a factor of 10 in 50 years, has also acted to devalue semi-skilled work.

Modern mythologies of work have at their apex the digital knowledge worker, perceived as the ultimate expression of work as a form of expressive play. Influential books like urbanist Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Classes contribute to the notion of creative labour as the foundation of the modern class order.

Florida’s central point is that regional growth is determined by which cities are able to attract this group of knowledge worker. Rising cities must then be designed prioritising the needs of such residents including their requirement for an army of low-paid, service labour – cleaners, kitchen hands, carers and garbage collectors. Those with Macjobs must be served by others with Mcjobs – as noted by British researchers Maarten Goos and Alan Manning.

But many long-term citizens and aspirational youth have little attraction to Mcjobs. The large proportion of newly arrived immigrants working in low-paid work may have reduced the status and cost of such activities, illustrated by wage exploitation scandals in outlets like 7-Eleven.

The kind of ordinary work that once carried an innate dignity is now seen as only suitable for foreigners and failures.

When seen in combination with cultural forces where the public proclamation of pain confers status and allows for the extraction of privilege, is it any wonder that some people on the border of disability and the precariat – the world of insecure, low-paid work – may find greater esteem in the identity of disability.

Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist and author of Fragile Nation.

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