Viv Groskop: Poundland may not be a dream job – but it doesn't have to define you

 

Share
Related Topics

Shelf-stacking was too challenging for me.

This was around the late 1980s, early 1990s, and I was in the sixth form and earning money for driving lessons. The problem was, I was an overzealous stacker, eager to please and wanting to save my co-workers the extra graft of having to restack later. "You're packing too many in," tutted the manager. "No one wants to buy crushed crisps, Vivienne." I was stripped of my responsibilities regarding the Golden Wonder delivery.

They moved me to the till. Even more disastrous. I liked to chat to the customers more than I liked to add up their grocery purchases correctly. This was in the days before scanning, where you keyed in each price individually. I can still remember the resentment in one woman's eyes. I rang through her entire basket of goods twice as she thought I'd overcharged her. Which I had. But we had had a great chat! For free! What was her problem?

Hopeless doesn't cover it. But this is the trouble with work. We are all made for different things in life. But sometimes it's not easy to find those things. And sometimes no one wants to pay you to do the thing you would rather be doing – or even just the thing you would be better at.

At the same time, certain kinds of work are seen as exciting and worthwhile. Others are euphemistically referred to by prime ministers as "learning experiences". Honestly, who wants to sign up to a "learning experience"? It has the ring of Deliverance or at least of mild torture of some kind.

The discussion about work has arisen thanks to the Government's various new unemployment strategies. In the past few weeks TK Maxx, Poundland, Sainsbury's and Waterstones have all sought to distance themselves from these schemes. And yesterday the Employment minister, Chris Grayling, found himself having to explain to BBC Radio 4's Evan Davis that David Cameron really does have a point about this "learning" in a supermarket business.

It's not much fun to hear it from an Old Etonian who has never strained his eyes checking a sell-by date (tell me about it – the effort!), but it is true that you can actually learn something from shelf-stacking. Even if, as in my case, it's just that you shouldn't really be doing it. (Davis seemed strongly to disagree. With Grayling. Not about whether I would be better suited to shelf-stacking. Unhelpfully, this was not discussed.)

But the arguments over the rights and wrongs of these schemes underline how messed up we are over work as a concept. Most people now seem to labour under the illusion that fulfilling, meaningful work is a basic human right. We wish. Unfortunately, it's a massive luxury. And one few of us can afford, especially in a recession, where it's monumentally unwise to be picky about how you earn your cash.

It's almost as if "work" itself has become exclusively an abstract concept, something we engage in as a route towards self-fulfilment, a part of our identity. In our collective mind, it's no longer something we do to pass the time and earn money to pay the rent. But that definition of work is just in our minds. The reality is very different. Most people have at some stage in their life worked in low-paid, low-skilled jobs in supermarkets, bars, restaurants, factories or on the land. And many – actually, surely, most? – do it for a living their whole lives.

The idea that you can turn something exciting that you love to do into your main source of income is a relatively modern one. Traditionally, work has been something you did to get by. If you can make it more than that? Well, in that case, as my grandad would have said, you don't know you're born. He ran a corner shop for 40 years. He saw it as a job to be tolerated, not a vocation to lose himself in. He was bemused by ineptitude around point-of-sale displays.

We assume that there's something wrong with "working to live". But the fact is, that is what most people do. Only one thing is for sure: one way or another, we all have to work because we all need to earn money to live. Anything else is a bonus, according to Sylvia Plath: "You don't write to support yourself. You work to support your writing." (If Plath, not the most practical of people, could embrace that, then surely anyone can.)

The difficulty comes when it feels as if someone else is exploiting your situation. The Government's problem is that the "work-for-free at Tesco" row is about two completely different things which have become dangerously conflated. First, we have a group of people on benefits who have not necessarily ever seen anyone in their family go out to work, and who have no idea what the point is of working when you can't get paid much more for working than you do for being on benefits. Second, we have an unemployment problem because there are not enough jobs to go round.

It's the second problem that is the killer here. If you have jobs going and money to pay people to do them, could you please just employ people and pay them? There is no need to call it "work experience" if it is "work". The first problem is a longer-term one and will not be solved by telling those used to benefits, "Oh, you have to work at Tesco now to get the same money you used to get for free."

Meanwhile, let's not disrespect work of any kind. Work is work and, more importantly, it's money. Whether you stay in it or move on, it's not who you are. Royal Bank of Scotland boss Stephen Hester started out packing Polos. Damien Hirst first discovered formaldehyde when he drew the short straw with a student placement at a mortuary. Shirley Bassey worked in a porcelain factory. Janet Street-Porter worked at Woolworth's. Sue Perkins was a toilet cleaner.

I was and always will be a person who cannot stomach Golden Wonder crisps. They're always crushed into little bits anyway, aren't they?

twitter.com/VivGroskop

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas