The World of Work These Days?

My aunts and uncles worked hard to provide for the children. It’s what stands out in my memory. Manual labour for the men and housework for the women, the latter with the odd part time job thrown in when times were even harder than usual. Their ancestors were the same, going back many generations as barrel makers, first in Ireland then south London, as well as dockers, butchers and rag and bone men. Life wasn’t easy but they made up for that with the strength within the family. My generation were the beneficiaries of that bedrock.

When I grew up, work was what I did. Some boredom but making the best of it with, in the army, some anarchic and subversive fun followed by something similar in the various architectural practices I worked in. Life as a full time student while bringing up my children was also fun giving me time to get involved in the things that I had long dreamt about. In the 35 years since then, apart from a short period of about a year, what I’ve done for a living was what I’ve enjoyed doing; a situation that continues as I get older.

An important aspect of the desire to get on was, some sort of career path, even though, by jumping from one sphere to another, I tended to ignore it. I’m not sure how that can happen quite so easily for young people today, serving coffee in Starbucks or Costa or burgers in McDonalds. So, why am I writing this? Well, to highlight what I see as the creation of an unrewarding and punitive work environment.

My youngest daughter is at university and she recently did work experience at our local paper, the Camden New Journal. As her first job, she was sent out to do some vox pops and write an article based on the results. She rang me to say that she wasn’t having much luck and “what could she do?” I suggested that she just pop into a couple of the shops and interview the staff.

When she got home, she’d done what she set out to do but remarked on the response she’s received from those staff. This was that they couldn’t really say anything as they didn’t want to get the sack! Whether this was a real possibility or just their view is irrelevant, because, whichever it was, something had created a working environment for them in which that was uppermost in their minds. These stories further reinforced an experience I had a few years ago when I went to buy a roof rack for the car. When I took it to the checkout, the member of staff who served me asked if I wanted it fitted. As it was only ten pounds extra, I accepted. I walked to the car where I was joined by another shop assistant, with the rack, which he proceeded to fit.

While he was doing this, I passed the time of day with him; someone else who was no longer in the first flush of youth. I asked him about how long he’d worked there and what it was like. When he told me the hours and the number of days he worked, I expressed amazement. He also commented on the number of “young suits” who came around with their clipboards to check on the staff and who seem to have no idea of the realities of the work that the staff were engaged in. We talked about what life had been like in our younger days and the employment rights that had been fought for. At which point, he said that he really shouldn’t be talking to customers like this if he wanted to keep his job. Somewhat embarrassed, I changed the subject.

Now that may be an extremely limited experience. However, as I’ve described in my book, “The Real Big Society”, there were newspaper reports a few years ago of household name companies utilising a device, which their employees used to track orders, to monitor those same employees’ performance.  One was quoted as saying that it was a bit was like a slave camp.

So, not only are there a great number of people on zero hours contracts and/or longer working hours on low pay but the working environment itself is not as good as it could be. Whereas, in reality, you get the best out of people by making them feel valued and not just with facile mantras but by your everyday actions. Even the former football manager famous for his occasional “hairdryer” treatment of players, also said that the words most of us want to hear are “Well done”. After all, it must be just as easy to create pleasant instead of unpleasant working conditions and so much more rewarding.

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