Back-to-front working

Over the weekend, the novelist Richard Ford wrote a piece on the vocabulary of what he does (here). I use this circuitous phrase because he isn’t sure that what he does is work. It’s an interesting, if somewhat odd piece, in that such a nuanced writer seems to not notice that there is a difference between ‘a job’ and ‘work’. He works, he just doesn’t have a job.

For Ford, it appears, work must be tiring, physically or mentally, and unpleasant. If you enjoy it, you are not working. (This is reductive, of course: his position is more complicated than that. But while reductive, it’s not a distortion of what he is saying.) Ford was born in 1944, and his views were formed, not unnaturally, in the Great Depression: you were lucky to have a job, and most likely you didn’t enjoy it. Yet he overlooks the many groups of people who both have a job and work, and enjoy what they do: barristers making a killer argument, GPs arriving at a tricky diagnosis, teachers finding a rewarding pupil. All enjoy their jobs, yet it is still work.

Does ‘work’ have to be tiring, dull and repetitive to qualify? Of course not, although equally of course there are jobs that are tiring, dull and repetitive, just as the most enjoyable jobs have t,d&r moments.

It seems a useful time to ask these questions, as the Tory cuts (sorry, Conservative savings) are a) making jobs vanishingly rare, and b) with their separation of ‘front-line’ and ‘back-office’ jobs, they making a suggestion that only some kinds of jobs are really and truly work. (Jamie Fahey has blogged about it here.)

‘Back-office’ jobs is a euphemism, of course. It is a way of denigrating certain jobs, in this case for political gain. These ‘back-office’ jobs are, for the most part, exactly what Ford would call ‘work’: they are tiring, dull and repetitive. And yet they are truly work: they keep us moving, keep the economy turning (how Conservative is that?). Without an accounting office, would Tory Central Office continue to function? Of course not, just as it wouldn’t without cleaners, people who ensure their computers function, who order stationery, who keep their cars running… Well, you get the idea.

Jobs are, as Ford says, for most people, who you are, they indicate ‘something about your character as a provider and what you valued, about your hold on a secure future, about your grasp on moral responsibility and self-awareness.’ If you didn’t have work, then the ‘world would find another index — which it sometimes did at your peril. ‘He doesn’t have a job’ meant something specific, and it didn’t mean you were rich.’

The Conservatives sound just like the Victorians, with their ideas of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor: some jobs have value, some are to be sneered and whitewashed into non-existence. But work is work, jobs are jobs: they give us, and the world around us, meaning and dignity.

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