Beggars and Choosers

In a climate of mass unemployment, the "job" takes on inflated proportions. Its scarcity turns it into a precious metal, its possession promising salvation from the miseries of being out of work. Those in employment may feel lucky to have a job, and those who don't have one want one (or are at least told that they should want one). But is to have a job always a "good" thing?

If we are unemployed - and particularly if we are receiving state sponsored benefits - then it can seem as if we have no discretion when it comes to the type of job we do. We must take anything that comes our way, provided we are "capable" of doing it (presumably meaning that we are physically and mentally up to the task, not whether we are morally/ethically capable, or capable in any other sense).

If we follow this line of logic further then we arrive at the conclusion that every job is a worthy job; that every job deserves to exist if for no other reason than that it provides employment for the individual, and means that they no longer have to rely on state benefits. The job allows the individual to become an "functioning" member of the community - to contribute, in a way in which, presumably, the individual on benefits does not contribute.

If we adhere to this view then we must accept its implications. When every job is a worthy one, we accept the incursions that certain roles make into our lives. We are no longer, for example, allowed to become angry when we are bothered by telesales operatives ringing our house. We see that they are only doing their job, and that their job allows them to become an honorable and functioning member of the community. In a sense, we have demanded that they ring our house; just as we have demanded all other possibilities for employment, regardless of how they may impact on our quality of life.

In accepting this viewpoint we have thrown discretion out of the window, both for those who seek employment and for those who may be affected by it. In an environment in which "a job's a job" there is no room for discretion; it becomes a luxury that we cannot afford. Yet, to lose sight of discretion is to lose sight of the larger picture. If we care about our community, our society, and the direction in which it is headed, then discretion must always have a place, and not simply as a luxury of those who can "afford" it. It is illogical to, on the one hand complain about the dysfunction that is caused by certain roles within a society, whilst on the other insisting that "a job's a job" and "beggar's can't be choosers". Perhaps a mark of the responsible society is that everyone can - and should - be a chooser.

If we consider a role to be contributing towards a dysfunction that we see within our local or wider community, then we must not feel compelled to assume this role in order to regain our footing within the community. Whilst, on the surface, our employment may appear to be doing the community a service, it may actually, in the long run, be doing it damage. If it is our duty to the collectivity to keep its interests, as well as our own, in mind, then perhaps we should bear in mind that beggars - as with all others - must always be choosers.

Originally published 25/3/10

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A moment’s silence, if you please, to mark the passing of the Big Society.

It had been in poor health for some time, but has finally been put out of its misery by the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, during a TV interview on Sunday

A graduate was better employed stacking shelves, unpaid, in a supermarket, Duncan Smith argued, than doing voluntary work for a local museum. 

Duncan Smith was infuriated that an Appeal Court had upheld the case of Cait Reilly, a geology graduate who, in order to get her back-to-work payments, was forced to give up her voluntary work at a museum and stack shelves instead.

The truth is, Reilly had been behaving in precisely the way which Cameron used to recommend. The idea behind the Big Society was that it would wean people off dependency on the State, encourage neighbourliness and bring communities together. Volunteering for things – running a local museum, for example – would show that, beyond the nanny state and the harsh jobs market, there was another world of work where satisfaction mattered more than pay.

For many conservatives, these must have been dangerously liberal thoughts. If people like Cait Reilly began to discover that there was more to life than being an economic unit, then the whole market-based system of values would start to crumble.

Conservatives do love a shelf-stacker. It is a job which represents enterprise in a strangely pure and beautiful way. Successful industrialists like to recall that they started their brilliant careers stacking shelves; perhaps, during his gap year, Duncan Smith did some stacking himself.

“Smart people”, he said this weekend, should ask themselves when they were next unable to find something in a supermarket, whose job is more important – a geologist or a shelf-stacker.

An out-of-work person is better employed doing unpaid grunt-work so that a multinational business makes bigger profits, the thinking goes, than working in her community.

If the Big Society had meant anything, then the back-to-work scheme would have put real emphasis on the voluntary sector. It is there that job-seekers are most likely to learn useful values – a sense of engagement and responsibility.

As “smart people”, they might also conclude that being told to stack shelves for the benefit of Poundland in return for a government benefit is little more than an exercise in cynicism and exploitation.

[Terence Blacker]
From Independent 'i' newspaper, see here


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