Shirker or striver? Most of us are neither

Let's hear it for the majority, who do their best and then go home. Plus, business people should stick to business, and poetic bad behaviour

Share
Related Topics

The most sensible remark uttered by a politician last week came courtesy of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Clark. Commenting on the moral separation supposed by Conservative hardliners to exist between "strivers" and "shirkers", Mr Clark insisted that "worklessness is a complex problem" and that to divide the working – and non-working – population into aspiring tycoons and feckless sofa-loungers was unduly simplistic. "What many people want from life is not a relentless struggle for advancement," Mr Clark went on, "but a reasonable working day, in which they can do a good job but still have time for friends and family."

The idea that anyone holding down paid employment must automatically regard themselves as a board director in embryo arrived in the UK in the years after the First World War. Its origins, most social historians would probably agree, lay in the galloping Americanisation of post-war British life, where "up-to-date" commercial techniques were just as much a part of the landscape as Greta Garbo's smile.

George Bowling, the hero of Orwell's Coming Up For Air (1939), remembers his days as a young City worker in the 1920s as a series of slogans. "Pep, punch, grit, sand. Get on or get out … It was the spirit of the time. Get on! Make good! If you see a man down, jump on his guts before he gets up again."

We live in a more genteel age, where public expression of these sentiments is more or less frowned upon, but their implications hang in the air above virtually every private company in England.

When I worked in the City, back in the 1990s, it was my melancholy duty, once or twice a month, to attend departmental meetings harangued by the firm's marketing partner. It was the usual kind of bunkum about the company making great strides and maximum effort being required, and yet, for all the effect it had on the audience, the words might just as well have been spoken in Urdu.

Ninety per cent of those present did not want to engage in the savage, Darwinian struggle of which modern business life now seemed to consist. They wanted to do their jobs to the best of their abilities and then go home. The most sinister thing about the "get on or get out mentality" 15 years later is its newfound technological underpinning, so that every mid-evening train in England is filled with nervous men in suits, anxiously awaiting their boss's final call when they should be at home playing with their children.

...

Still with commerce, it was remarkable how in most of the week's major news stories the interests of a single constituency seemed to predominate. Thus, on Wednesday, a letter was delivered to the Department for Education, protesting about Michael Gove's A-level reforms, signed by a collection of arts gurus, educationalists … and business leaders. Twenty-four hours later, as the commentariat chewed the fat over the Prime Minister's proposals for a referendum on the EU, the television studios seemed to have reduced this horribly complex problem to a single question: what did business think of it?

Now, it would be foolish to deny that when it comes to government policy on most of the major issues of the day, the voice of business ought to be heard. At the same time, it ought not to be heard in excelsis, to the exclusion of other voices, or met with the delusion that it is the only voice which matters.

In the field of education, for example, employers are perfectly entitled to insist that the people who apply to them for jobs are literate and numerate, but you suspect that the curriculum designed for teenagers is best left to educationalists. The aim of education (or so one always assumed) is to produce fully rounded citizenry with inquiring minds, not – or not specifically – the chartered accountants of the future.

It is the same with Europe, where the issues are not simply economic, but constitutional, historical and – dare one say it? – sentimental. It would be a shame if the EU debate degenerated into the spectacle of gangs of businessmen hurling statistics at each other. There are far more important things at stake.

***

The contrast between the two dead American poets conspicuously on display last week – T S Eliot and Allen Ginsberg – was rather instructive. On the one hand, we had Eliot, the fourth volume of whose collected letters has been respectfully reviewed on all sides, confirming his reputation for civility, austerity and Holy Communion at dawn. On the other, we had Ginsberg, guilelessly played by Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings, turning poetry into performance, rolling spliffs and shagging sailors.

And, leaving aside the poetry, which of these approaches does the reader prefer? One sometimes feels, confronted by a Ginsberg, or a Dylan Thomas, that the flamboyancy on which their public personae was based was really only a kind of benefit of clergy, the equivalent of saying, "Because I am a poet the normal rules of human behaviour don't apply". Eliot himself once asked the young Stephen Spender what he wanted to do in life and got the answer "To be a poet". Eliot, suspecting a lifestyle choice rather than a vocation, was suspicious. If nothing else, Eliot's career is a pattern demonstration of the fact that it is possible to combine the most avant-garde aesthetic stance with the living of a perfectly ordinary life.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: the strange case of the errant royal pronoun

Guy Keleny
Flowers and candles are placed at the site where a refrigerated truck with decomposing bodies was found by an Austrian motorway  

EU migrant crisis: The 71 people found dead in a lorry should have reached sanctuary

Charlotte Mcdonald-Gibson
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future