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

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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.

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