It will create too much stress. It will destroy work-life balance. All the travelling around will only worsen the energy crisis, while it will prove impossible for parents to look after their children, or for anyone to care for elderly parents. Judging by the outraged reaction to reports of the Truss Government’s very modest tweaks to the benefits rules, “work” in Britain seems to have been turned into an optional pursuit.
This do-nothing attitude has its foundations in our flawed welfare system, which has helped create a country where requiring an extra three hours of labour – a mere 180 extra minutes out of the 10,080 that make up a week – is regarded as a violation of human rights on a scale that no civilised society can possibly tolerate.
In truth, the proposed changes for Universal Credit claimants are barely noticeable. At the moment, so long as you put in 12 hours a week at the living wage, you can claim the credit without having to look for extra hours or meet with a work coach. Under the proposal, that will be increased to 15 hours. Most of us would probably think that was a positive incremental shift, especially in a country with massive labour shortages, record numbers of vacancies, and facing an inflationary crisis that will only ultimately be fixed by producing more stuff.
But for the affronted reaction, you might think that Kwasi Kwarteng was planning to fly anyone on benefits straight off to Rwanda, or at the very least start rebuilding the workhouses. Ministers parading the television and radio studios yesterday morning haplessly tried to argue that it was hardly unreasonable to expect people doing fewer than a couple of days a week to put in a bit more of a shift before claiming support from the state. If nothing was available, of course they should receive benefits, but perhaps they wouldn’t mind looking around.
The poor souls must have thought such reasonableness would protect them from the inevitable allegations of inhumanity from the Left.
So what has happened to Britain, once the industrial powerhouse of the world? A culture that regards labour as an imposition has been growing for years, recently accelerated by the Covid lockdowns. We can see it in the constant preaching from the evangelists for WFH – or “lounging around in your PJs”, as it is technically known in the economics textbooks – who have come to regard showing up at your place of employment as an infringement of basic rights. We can also see it in the emphasis on “work-life” balance that constantly demands shorter hours and more paid leave for anyone who has a job.
We see it too in the push for a four-day week with no loss of pay, now being entertained by some local councils, and of course, with depressing inevitability, by the devolved administrations. And in the endless judicial and regulatory attacks on “gig work”, which seems to be based on the notion that there is something wrong with a side hustle or two, and assumes that the guys taking you home in an Uber at 2am are being brutally exploited rather than willingly putting in a few extra hours to make some extra cash.
Perhaps most of all, we see it in the demands from endless think tanks and second-rate academics for a “Universal Basic Income”, now being trialled in Wales, which offers everyone a weekly pay packet regardless of productivity.
The culmination of all this rubbish is a do-nothing economy, where record numbers of people have left the labour market either to claim benefits or else to early retirement. That will ultimately prove a disaster. We need people to work, and often to work hard, simply to make all the things and provide all the services we need to keep functioning as a society. And just as crucially, work is not just a matter of earning a living, it gives moral purpose and shape to our lives.
The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant once summed up his rules for happiness as “something to do, something to believe in, something to hope for”, and it was, tellingly, the “something to do” that he put first on the list. Arguing that people should look for more than 12 hours work a week to claim benefits should be about as controversial as arguing they should brush their teeth at night or send their mum a card on her birthday.
Until we rediscover the sense of work as being worthwhile in itself, we will never get out of this mess.