My father would always judge someone not by their background – but by their work ethic. As far as he was concerned, anyone who was hard working and honest – no matter their job or class – deserved respect. But woe betide the individual – especially one who had enjoyed advantages like a good education – who squandered their privilege by embracing an idle way of life. For them he had no time.
I wonder what he would have made of our current predicament. It was recently announced that sick days have hit a 10-year high – 7.8 per annum, as opposed to 5.8 in 2019. Stress, Covid and the cost of living crisis are apparently to blame for these high levels of absenteeism.
While those factors are part of the problem, I think the underlying issues run much deeper. My experience is that many workforces are disengaged and demotivated. Unsurprisingly, sick days in the public sector remain at twice the level of those in the private sector. Society’s focus on mental health has encouraged those with a tendency towards depression and anxiety to demand treatment and more time off.
Over eight million people are receiving anti-depressants in the U.K. – the number of such prescriptions has more than doubled in the last 10 years. But are there actually twice as many people who are clinically depressed as there were a decade ago? And are the 83 million anti-depressant prescriptions issued every year doing any good?
The authorities’ overreaction to Covid encouraged mass hypochondria. Our culture already over-medicalises everyday life – the official neurosis over Covid sent many people into overdrive. This carries a heavy cost for society and individuals. It increases the burden on the NHS and it undermines the nation’s moral fibre. It feeds into the ‘victimhood’ narrative. The problem is that someone has to look after and pay for all the ‘victims’. This trend is especially disturbing among far too many fit and healthy young people who are in the prime of life. Instead of exploring the world, taking risks and becoming self-reliant, far too many are fearful and dependent.
Meanwhile, it might appear as if unemployment has been cured – only 3.7% of the workforce, or 1.3m people, are registered as unemployed – almost a record low. But unfortunately, a further 2.5 million people of working age say they have health problems which means they cannot work. Indeed, fully a quarter of people aged between 16 and 64 are economically inactive.
Lockdown was a disastrous Government intervention which begat others. Many millions were unable to work and companies would have made them redundant or gone broke. So the Government invented furlough – an ‘innovative’ system of paying people to stay at home and do nothing. I believe this policy had pernicious moral and psychological consequences. It broke the link between work and pay. It encouraged shirkers to think that they could receive money for being idle. And like most of the lockdown stupidity, it has left a grim economic legacy.
Talk to bosses and privately most will tell you that their workforce is not as industrious as it was. Some will blame Long Covid, some will blame Working From Home, some will blame bad habits acquired during long periods of furlough. But prior to lockdowns, the very concept of ‘quiet quitting’ (purposefully doing the minimum work while avoiding the sack) would have seemed outrageous. Now, too many people see it as a valid approach to their career.
Some might argue that many jobs are dull, that certain firms exploit their workers and that overwork is a endemic burden which needs addressing. Yet all research suggests that being out of work is much worse for people’s wellbeing than being in a job – despite all these possible drawbacks.
Jobs don’t just give people financial rewards. Much of their status, social relations, daily structure and self-respect are derived from their work. The World Happiness Report, which uses Gallup’s data to analyse the quality of people’s lives, shows unequivocally that being out of work – for those of a working age – generally leads to misery.
A job provides a reason to get out of bed and do things. Work makes our world go round and provides meaning, goals and an income for billions of workers – and their families. Chronically lazy people tend to lack purpose and fritter their lives away. They contribute little to the world, but expect to be provided for by those around them.
Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins and it is entirely right that the work-shy and shiftless should be made to feel ashamed. There are at least a million job openings in Britain of every description – there is currently work for every able bodied individual.
That will not be the case for ever. Just as raging inflation and interest rates of 5% have come as a severe shock to a whole generation, so one day we are likely to experience 7%, 10% or even higher rates of unemployment. Worklessness is a terrible curse, but I fear it is coming. I see many struggling organisations with staff who are clearly underemployed. Eventually those employers will find a way to do more with fewer people – possibly thanks to AI, possibly because of outsourcing and offshoring.
Furlough and working from home have fed into an entitlement culture which could ultimately bankrupt the entire welfare state. This model works on a system of voluntary reciprocation: those who can earn a living do, while those who are genuinely too frail, disabled or ill to work are supported by productive members of society. But if too many people are too indolent to work and pay their way and the system enables them to get away with it, then at some point taxpayers will revolt – or the Government will run out of money.
Economists say Britain is suffering from a productivity crisis, and I fear the legacies of lockdowns like furlough have exacerbated it. Unfortunately, 47% of GDP is now taken up by Government spending, national debt exceeds £2.5 trillion (the interest on which will soon exceed £100 billion a year) and tax rates are at a 50 year high.
Essentially, we are borrowing to fund our lifestyles and living beyond our means. An ever narrower tax base, with fully 29% of income tax paid by just 1% of taxpayers, is an unsustainable edifice. Public services like the NHS, the police, social care, the civil service and so forth are widely seen as inefficient or even failing. Yet the paranoia and overspending during Covid triggered a contradictory desire for more state intervention and higher public spending – even though most of us know that many parts of the public sector – like the NHS – are not working.
Our standard of living will certainly stagnate unless we can improve productivity and grow the economy. But that cannot happen if people lack the energy or ambition to apply themselves and put in the work. We cannot simultaneously work less and expect the state to do more. The decadent nonsense of ideas like a Universal Basic Income and a four day week must be discarded permanently. The books will simply not balance.
Part of the challenge we face is demographics – society is much older than it was, so the demand for healthcare, social services and so forth is much higher. Arguably, we face the prospect of having to work harder in the years to come just to maintain our quality of life, thanks to an ageing population and the significant debt burden we have accumulated.
But this possible destiny has been exacerbated by the safetyism of modern times and the denigration of work as a noble pursuit. Any society that wants to progress must put its shoulder to the wheel. If we want to build things – like more homes, which we desperately need – we need more bricklayers, carpenters, electricians etc. If we want an improved healthcare system, we need more doctors, radiographers, pharmacists and nurses etc. We need more grafting entrepreneurs to start and grow fabulous enterprises which generate innovative new products, exports and taxes. We must consign the horror of furlough to the dustbin of history, stop celebrating victimhood, and instead state categorically that work is an essential and an overwhelming force for good.
Luke Johnson is a Director of Skeptics Ltd, the company that publishes the Daily Sceptic.