So this is a series post about the demoralization of Britain’s Working Class; relating to deindustrialization, class politics and social mobility which all play significant roles in the decline of Britain’s working class. But before we get to grasps with how this has happened, lets take a quick look at how the working class become almost romanticized in the 20th century.
During the industrial revolution, the working class began to develop a strong culture and identity, as they began to be regarded with respect for the work they carried out. This was in stark opposition to being treated as “peasants” during previous times. A lot of this culture was taken on from the “localized folk culture”. This led on to TV programs which were (and some still are) centered around working class life such as the Simpsons, Family Guy and Only Fools and Horses. This happened around the same time as the emergence of the Labour Party, which at the time strongly represented the working class. This came about partly due to the widening of the enfranchise meaning that those working class people who had previously been unable to vote, needed a party to represent their interests. This party was also closely affiliated with trade unions, and was in-fact created by these unions as well as socialist societies, which were there to speak up for the rights of workers. Therefore the working class were becoming more prominant within both culture and politics. Subsequently it was harder for the middle and upper classes to dismiss them, and in-fact working class culture was almost romanticised within the middle and upper classes. Until around the 1960s, this respect affiliated with the working class remained strong, however from the mid 60s-early 70s, the journey towards the new essence in hw the working class see themselves, and how they are portrayed by others began. So between the industrial revolution when the working class earned their dignity, and now where the attitude toward the working class is at best dismissal and at worst; dispute, what exactly went wrong, and why?
The Decline of industry
It was from the beginning of the 1960s when industry begun going into decline. This was partly as a result of arising globalization meaning it was cheaper for Britain to import goods like iron and steel from abroad due to lower costs, compared to continue to produce these goods at home. This was not just the case within Britain, but many European countries as well as America saw a decline in industry for this very reason. Now all countries which have experienced this have suffered on varying degrees, and I won’t go into detail and compare these with the UK. However it is clear that deindustrialization has had a devastating affect on many areas within the UK, which is very visible even to this day.
Now whether you are for or against globalization, it is more than rather clear that policies of the government during this time (old Maggie), didn’t at all help in mitigating some of the issues which would arise from industry going abroad. Rather she almost enhanced the suffering. By privatizing and neglecting many industries such as the coal mines, it meant that the government couldn’t help them so couldn’t help to hinder the affects of deindustrialization. Meaning that the hit on certain areas and workers within them, would not have been so drastic. Another hit was the so called “help to buy scheme” put in place during her era, where millions of initially council homes were sold off to private developers meaning that most of those who would have previously been elidable to attain a council property, now are most likely to have to put aside their scarce money, in order to save for a “partly owned property.” Unsurprisingly she also put extra emphasis on the myth that if left to the free market, any level of work put in by an individual equates to what they get out of it, for themselves. Clearly a myth, because how on earth are people in areas with few jobs, little money, and poor schooling meant to “work themselves up”, while it is ok for someone of a higher class to basically inherit wealth and have all of their educational and occupational opportunities handed over to them on a plate. It’s bullshit! But this might explain why subsequent governments, including the most recent Labour one, tended to “brush off” the struggles now facing the working class, because now opportunities are clearly so equal that there is no need to worry too much… But we need to keep in mind that the numbers made unemployed within the UK happened at a faster rate than in any European country, therefore I would guess that the government did actually make a difference…
So now we know what happened with regards to jobs for the working class at the time, but how come 40 years later, the effects of this are still so apparent? And what is it about the previous jobs owned by the working class, that makes them so difficult to replace? Well back in 1950 the work place was dominated by jobs in manufacturing including an affluent coal and steel industry. Plus many of these jobs were based in areas now experiencing some of the highest rates of deprivation, such as in the North east and west. However as we probably know these jobs have now been replaced by those in the service sector including “Public admin, education and health” which accounts for 30.2% of the workforce and “distribution, hotels and restaurants” which accounts for 18.2% of the workforce. Meanwhile a mere 9% of the workforce are in manufacturing. This clearly emphasises the shift in types of occupations avaliable. But we know too that the UK now is far more known for it’s industry in finance, compared to its hospitality industry or its public services. Because while not many are actually working in high paid jobs in the financial industry, the financial sector contributed £132 billion to the UK economy, which accounts for 6.9% of the economic output, meanwhile although 7% of total jobs within the UK are within the financial sector, many of these are low paid admin roles such as working in call centers. Whilst there is a small number of people working in finance, who are earning immense amounts of money. This basically suggests to us that unlike before when the UK was partly known for its good number of industrial jobs dominated by the workers, it has been replaced by a small number of people on very high salaries in the affluent capital. Whereby 49% of the sectors output being generated there (source, House of Commons Library). Thus suggesting that the economy has reverted to revolve around those on the very highest salaries, while the working class are no longer deemed as being at all significant.
This may seem rather far fetched, but the income inequality illustrated by the gini coefficient has significantly risen, being at 0.26 in 1961, and at 0.34 ending 2014. Not only this, but it looks like the very rich in Britain are getting far far richer, as a report conducted by the the economic policy institute last year shows that in 1969 the CEO to average worker earnings ratio stood at 20-1 in 1969, meanwhile last year it was at 271-1. I would argue this is partly due to the decline of trade unions, who stand up for worker’s rights, which peaked back at the start of the 20th century.
Contrary to this notion, some may believe that the “working class” are better off now, compared to Pre-deindustrialization times. Because lets face it, coal mines were smelly and many ex-coal workers now suffer with persistent lung, heart and goodness knows what other problems; while most of these manufacturing jobs were very physically demanding. While nowadays you are unlikely to see many 13 year old’s working at a till, let alone down a mine, though it does happen… However while these were hard going, tedious and rather dangerous, we cannot deny that there was a strong sense of identity and community attached to this kind of work. Whereas within the current job sectors, which would be aimed at the working class, there just isn’t the same kind of feeling of belonging. But what is it about the “working class jobs” out here now which has lead to a loss in pride? Or would there be other factors too going alongside this issue?
By looking at the recent rates of unemployment, being at just 3.9% as of 2019, it would be difficult to understand why the working class are viewed in such a bad way. Because this suggests that the majority of the workforce are job secure and therefore why would they or others perceive their job in such a bad way? However we need to recognize that it is far harder to claim unemployment benefit nowadays. Previously claiming this benefit was based upon amount of National Insurance paid throughout working without the need to “prove” that you are looking for work. However now to claim “jobseekers allowance” you need to be taking “reasonable steps to look for work“, to have worked as an employee as well as having paid “class 1 National insurance contributions usually within the last 2 to 3 years.” This means that the unemployment rate is likely to hugely underestimated in areas of high structural unemployment due to the sheer difficulty of finding work. This therefore shows that there is more of a problem than what it might seem, when regarding unemployment. And because our politicians like to boast about the really low unemployment rate, it may lead to some people questioning the morality of those people who are unemployed- and as we can guess, right wing mainstream media is going to parrot these views.
If this profound difficulty in claiming unemployment benefit is not enough, nowadays a lot of these jobs are temporary, part time or are based on a zero hour contract. Someone on a zero hour contract basically doesn’t know whether they will get any work at all, or 7 long days of work on a weekly basis, meanwhile they are not entitled to some of the worker’s rights like sick pay. Firms as big as Sports Direct and McDonalds are notorious for having their workers on zero hour contracts. But this hasn’t always been the case, because until very recent years, the number of workers estimated to be on zero hour contracts stayed well below 300,000 while now it is estimated that as many as 1 in 40 workers are on them, and many more are at risk. Furthermore there are many roles now which only offer temporary contracts. As many local areas are more heavily reliant on the tourism sector now than they would have been say 50 years ago, due to decline of industry. This has been seen in large parts of South Wales, which was once home to coal mines which accounted for “a third of the total world exports of coal“, contrary to now where if you live in an area where there are high levels of tourism, you are rather likely to be hopeful that you can find work within that industry. However the tourism industry within all parts of the UK (and the world coming to think of it) is heavily dependent on external factors such as the weather, the strength of the economy, and now the coronavirus. And while tourism supports so much of the workforce, being 10% within Wales, people employed under it are not necessarily guaranteed alternative work during winter months, while there is high insecurity regarding whether they will still have their jobs come the following summer… Therefore due to the high insecurity and the most likely higher turnover rate, it is going to be difficult to replicate the same sense of pride and community, and sadly this trickles down to perceptions . Now it seems that it isn’t just workers who have lost this sense of pride, but the jobs for “the new working class” are not really regarded with the same essence. But how about work in retail, especially within supermarkets, surely this is just essential if not more so?
For instance as of 2019, there were “2.9 million UK workers in retail“. However as mentioned already in a previous blog post, we know that these retail workers are not very well treated with the levels of abuse that they face, whilst they are not well paid either. For instance with Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, pays all workers a mere £9 an hour. This is just above the minimum wage, of £8.72 for over 25s. Now £9 an hour might therefore seem like a reasonable level of pay, nevertheless work in retail, especially in supermarkets can be exhausting. Many workers at Lidl have acknowledged that they receive good pay, however many also state that “hours and pay are not constant and reliable” where it is not uncommon to go well over your shift. There have also been “poor management”, and “safety concerns.” While if you think the standard of this is poor, there are many well known companies which exploit especially young workers massively, where they receive undeniably low pay correlating with the various low minimum wages for under 25s. For under 18s this is only £4.50 while if you are under 21, it is just £6.45.
It is most likely that there are going to be more of these jobs available in the more well off and highly populated areas, simply because where there are more jobs for the working class, there are more people of all classes dependent on the work which needs to be done. Therefore if you happen to be working class and living somewhere where there are wealthy people, then you are lucky in the essence that if you hunt for a job for long enough you are probably going to be able to find one, even if it is horrendously paid and you don’t know whether you are coming or going with the management.
Redcar, in the North East of England, is a perfect anicdote of a region where this is not the case, with there being nothing really for those living within the area. This is where though tourism plays a small role in the economy, it’s main industry was steel. But now due to it’s decline, it is one of the Country’s most deprived regions. Here as many as four of the wards have over 40.8% of children living in workless households. Meanwhile this decline has evidently affected some of the other jobs on go in this area, where it saw the loss of their “Regent Cinema” due to structural defects. Showing that this decline has been a spiral, whereby the effect of the steel industry has affected a loss in other jobs. Furthermore those steel workers who have found work since, are most likely to have experienced “big wage cuts”, therefore their standard off living has declined.
This is just an example of one of the many regions within the UK which has been a victim of such sudden decline, and now neglect. And if you happen to live in a region like there, it can genuinely be extremely difficult to find work, let alone work which would be regarded as “dignified”.
So while the old “working class” might have encountered significant difficulties, even during the era when the British working class was romanticized, in many ways life is just as hard if not harder for the working class as it was. With short lived occupations, where the worker doesn’t often know what days they will be needed and when, it makes it almost it almost impossible for these people to find a sense of pride in what they do. While now the areas once home to the UK’s heavy weight industry, are now nothing more than pockets of decline. Working class jobs today tend to be behind the scenes work, work which actually fulfills everyone’s needs yet most still don’t regard it with much respect or work to serve people’s desires. This is instead of working within an industry at the “heart of a Nation”, so it is rather clear why other’s no longer perceive the working class in this strong willed manner. Because let’s face it; there is nothing very romantic about the smell of KFC’s chicken and chips making it’s way out of the shop and onto the streets. Meanwhile because unemployment statistics like to make the country look good, it makes those who are not able to find work look especially bad. As if it is the fault of those people, rather than down to the failings of the state… Of course we know that this is far from the truth, if we choose to be aware off the reasons why some areas seem to have particularly high numbers of those with seemingly nothing to do, yet these areas seem to just be filled with those too lazy to work? Anyway rant over for now, but you can see how this all contributes to the decline of the working class today…
Of course I have not managed to explain all factors which have affected the loss of dignity within jobs for the working class. And while you see people of all ages working in establishments like supermarkets, restaurants and retail outlets, you have probably noticed that a good number of these workers do however tend to be young, and probably won’t be working there all throughout their lives. Therefore it looks like something happens with some young people, meaning that although they do have to work, they are able to make further progress throughout life; in other words they have become socially mobilized. Though as good as it sounds, like with anything, the concept of social mobility is incredibly flawed as it stands. Therefore the next post in this series will explore the positives and the negatives of this concept, how class constructs are not as rigid as they used to be, as well as about how this slight change has caused much stigma to arise by the mainstream media.