“The habit of labour is a great thing; for, as Saint Bernard says, it gives the labourer strong arms and hard thews, whereas sloth makes them feeble and tender.”
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parson’s Tale
Tuesday 8 January was the date of the House of Commons vote on capping the increase for most benefits discussed in my previous blogpost. On that date, if you search through Hansard for all the debates in the Commons (not just the benefits debate), you will find the phrase “hard-working” used eleven times.
Mostly, there are “hard-working families” (mentioned five times). But there are also “hard-working individuals” (one mention); “hard-working people” (four mentions); and even “hard-working supportive role models” (one mention).
It’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot from politicians in the media as well. Chancellor George Osborne “is asking hard-working families to pay for his mistakes,” according to Labour MP Rachel Reeves in last Sunday’s Observer.
There’s no avoiding it. In political discourse, “hard-working” equates with ‘good’. You can safely assume that everyone else is not hard-working – whether this is explicitly made clear or not – and therefore ‘bad’. It is not a purely factual description of people (or families or whatever). It is a normative statement. Instinctively we regard industriousness as a virtue.
Your politics determines how you deploy the phrase. Those on the right use it simply to distinguish the employed from the unemployed – the latter cannot possibly be hard-working even if they want to be, and the former can only be hard-working whether they really are or not. On the left, it is used a little differently, but no less subtly, to distinguish the ordinary worker from the privileged rich – the former work hard for inadequate reward, the latter therefore work inadequately for excessive reward.
The moral power of the phrase “hard-working” is a strong one. It casts a glow of rectitude across whatever noun follows it, pretty much without exception. Imagine an estate agent. Reflect for a moment on what your emotions are towards this hypothetical professional. Now consider the plight of “the hard-working estate agent.” A more saintly character it is now hard to conceive. (They’re not entirely mythical, either; look, here are some in Wiltshire.) Do you support “hard-working investment bankers”? Of course you do. How about “hard-working traffic wardens”? You bet. ”Hard-working telemarketers”? You’ve got to feel sorry for them.
When considering the unquestionable virtue of the hard-working, the nature of the work appears to be irrelevant. ”Hard working people” deserve the praise of our politicians, no matter that some are probably hard-working cocaine distributors or hard-working dog-fight organisers.
Perhaps there is something about the hardness of hard work that carries a lot of the moral value. But how hard do you have to work to be considered ‘hard-working’? Indeed, what is the accepted unit of measurement for work-hardness? Do we take a physical approach, and measure energy expended in joules or calories? That would seem to suggest that sedentary, office-based professions might never be considered hard work, and that won’t do. We could take hours worked as our measure, although that could equate hard work with just slow work. Money earned, or revenue generated, would seem to be a rather materialistic measure of a moral virtue, and could come awfully close to defending the idea that “greed is good”.
Does the level of moral virtue increase with the hardness of the work, or can a person work too hard? What if you’re working hard on something that actually shouldn’t take hard work – which would suggest stupidity or incompetence or your part, or possibly deception, perhaps to gain greater financial reward? Are you still hard-working, and so deserving of political concern for your interests?
What is required to be a “hard-working family”? Do all members of the family have to work hard, or just a majority? How about if everyone works, but only one family member is properly working hard – you know, really giving it a good go? If I’m not hard-working but I send my three-year old son up chimneys or sell him to the Navy, would that count? Or is it about working hard at being a family?
Since I, myself, cannot by any plausible yardstick be considered “hard-working” (but living off the labour of no one other than my – more or less willing – spouse), are my interests not worthy of political consideration? If “hard-working families” should not see their taxes go to skivers, scroungers, financiers, footballers or whoever the villain-du-jour happens to be, is it nonetheless OK for my taxes to follow that route? Have I forfeited my moral shield, even as a law-abiding tax-payer, by virtue of my lack of employment?
No one bothers to really pick apart the phrase “hard-working” because it is used without much thought to its meaning. It is just thrown in as moral ballast. It is superfluous. It is intended to describe those who do not deserve to have their tax contributions squandered – but no one does, hard-working or not. It is a phrase used by politicians to make you think it is not they, but the slothful, who are doing the squandering. And, of course, it is used to portray all those in receipt of public largesse – whether they be benefit claimant or City banker, depending on your political persuasion – as slothful by definition. It makes me wince whenever I hear the phrase. It is clumsy, shrill, divisive and clichéd. Nothing would be lost from political debate if it were never uttered. I’d work hard for that.