Quit your day job: Study finds unemployment preferable to menial labour.

This post was written by Jon on April 26, 2011
Posted Under: Capitalism,Class,Economy,Poverty,Socialism,Society,The Welfare State

“There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading…To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt.” – Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891)

This story should have got much more attention than it did:

Researchers at Australian National University have found that positions with low security, high demands, and imbalanced effort-reward ratios cause more mental distress than unemployment. Over seven years, the researchers followed 7,000 respondents in an Australian labor survey. People who moved from no employment to jobs of “high psychosocial quality” showed gains in mental health. But those who went from jobless to employed in thankless, unstable positions were found to be more depressed and anxious than those who never got hired at all.

The authors of the study conclude (a bit mildly) that their ”results suggest that employment strategies seeking to promote positive outcomes for unemployed individuals need to also take account of job design and workplace policy.”

Anyone who has studied some economic theory knows the long list of costs associated with unemployment (including the often dramatic psychological costs). Hence the general view that work is better than worklessness. But when was the last time somebody brought up the issue of the psychological costs of work in a discussion on benefits and unemployment? (Clearly the sorts of people on the dole for a great length of time are not very likely to ever have jobs of a “high psychosocial quality”.)

For the necessary dirty work to be carried out, our economic system requires a permanent underclass of underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated human beings, for whom the mind-bending boredom and squalor of long term unemployment would actually be an improvement in their lives. (This is often the kind of work, remember, that stops the sewers overflowing and keeps our rubbish from piling up and rotting in the sun.)

Findings like these should provide an opportunity to openly and frankly discuss capitalism’s sheer fucking barbarity. Maybe we could decide that our current division of labour needs to be replaced with something more humane; we could defend the rights of individuals to abstain from jobs that will do incredible damage to their long-term health (maybe we could even decide that such people should not be denounced as ‘scroungers’ for doing so).

I’m not holding my breath.

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Reader Comments

Great post – but you left comments turned off again!

Written By Owen on April 26th, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

I turned the bastard comments on when I first posted it – it never responds.

(Don’t mind us, everyone).

Written By Jon on April 26th, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

Probably another bug…but you’re right, the comments probably weren’t a sensible place for me to point this out :P

Written By Owen on April 26th, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

Indeed, mankind has been working for millenia toward building a society in which human beings are free to pursue more creative tasks, or other stimulating activities, without the pressures of survival. Now we are nearing this capability, why should we not see automation of shit-shovelling tedium and the freedom to live by eudaimonic principles? A strong welfare state is a good way of transitioning from a monetary economy to one where people have room to live up to their potential without the need to grind MMORPG-style up the life tree to do it. Unless, of course, they want to. Someone just needs to get on and make a viable fusion reactor; then the transition can be completed.

Written By Rupert on April 26th, 2011 @ 11:09 pm
Captn Tripps

Hooo-eee… how could someone legitimately prove that a job would risk their mental health? It will need to be much more than “I don’t want to do that because it looks it will be shit” to be in any way defensible. Perhaps “I am allergic to bin bags” or “I have an irrational fear of waking up in the morning”?

Sorry to sound to unsympathetic but the pride in contributing to society should trancend any livable payment amount and should always be preferable to the lack of dignity people find in unemployment.

The majority of unemployed are mentally capable to work but the work just isn’t there. They need help finding something available they can do, not encouraged to be contented.

Written By Captn Tripps on April 27th, 2011 @ 12:17 am

How can performing a simple, repetitive, menial task over and over and over again *not* be damaging to mental health? Encouraging someone to be contented with an inescapable job that could be performed by a machine, in the name of contributing to what is less often ‘society’, but an individual further up the ladder doing far less work is, in my opinion, more morally questionable than accepting benefits and searching for something better. One should always be free to graft and gain a sense of achievement this way if they wish, but bear in mind that the desire to do so is at least partially induced by unemployment stigma among those already working.

Written By Rupert on April 27th, 2011 @ 10:43 am
Tony Michael

Don’t let us forget, that our privileged position in the West, to pursue these wonderful careers in the media or peddling corporate shite for a living, relies on a vast army of slave workers in the third world.

This is where capitalism does it’s real dirty work, so you can buy your designer jeans or iphone made by somebody living in true drudgery.

Written By Tony Michael on April 27th, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

What a load of drivel. So many holes in this I just don’t know where to start.

Written By Scott on October 10th, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

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