David Cameron addresses workers at a factory in Britain. ‘The dominant free-market ideology has convinced Britons that consumption is the ultimate goal of life, and that their work is only a means to gaining the income to buy the goods and services to derive pleasure from.’ Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images
With economic growth now picking up and unemployment inching its way downwards, things are beginning to look up for Britain's economy. Except that it does not seem that way to most people.
David Cameron may be in denial, but most people in Britain are experiencing a "cost of living crisis", as Labour puts it. Growth in nominal wages has failed to keep up with the rise in prices. With real wages predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility not to recover to the pre-crisis level until 2018, we are literally in for a "lost decade" for wage earners in Britain.
Worse, the crisis for British wage-earners is much more than the cost of living. It is a work crisis too. Take unemployment. For most people this results in a loss of dignity, from the feeling of no longer being a useful member of society. When combined with economic hardship, this loss makes the jobless more likely to suffer depression and even to take their own lives, as starkly shown by Sanjay Basu and David Stuckler in The Body Economic. There is even some evidence, published in the British Medical Journal, thatout of work people become more prone to heart diseases. Unemployment literally costs human lives.
On this account British workers have been doing badly since the financial crisis began. Though the unemployment rate has fallen, it still stands at 7.4%. Most people find this rate acceptable, if regrettable – but that is only because they've been taught to believe that full employment is impossible. We may not be able to go back to the mid-1960s and the mid-70s, when the jobless rate was between 1% and 2%, but a rate much lower than today's is possible, if we had different economic policies.
There is also the issue of job security. The feeling of insecurity is inimical to our sense of wellbeing, as it causes anxiety and stress, which harms our physical and mental health. It is no surprise then that, according to some surveys, workers across the world value job security more highly than wages.
On this account too, British workers have been doing very poorly. The rise in the number of zero-hours contracts is only the most extreme manifestation of increasing insecurity for the workforce. The 2010 European Social Survey revealed that a third of British workers feared losing their jobs – giving Britain, together with Ireland, the highest sense of job insecurity in Europe.
Then there's the issue of the quality of work. Even if you are getting the same real wage – which most British workers are not – wellbeing is reduced if your work becomes less palatable. It may have become more strenuous because, say, the company has just turned up the speed of the conveyor belt in the factory, as happened to Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Or the stress level may have increased because the company reduced your control over your work, as Amazon did when it decided to attach GPS machines to its warehouse staff.
Whatever form it takes, any deterioration in the quality of work can harm the worker's wellbeing. And this is what has been happening to many employees in Britain.
The European Social Survey also revealed that a quarter of British workers have had to do less interesting work. The 2012 Skills and Employment Survey revealed that British employees are now working with much greater intensity than before the crisis; the proportions of jobs requiring high pressure, high speed and hard work all rose significantly from 2006.
And then there is the issue of commuting. Britons spend more hours travelling to and from work than any other workforce in Europe. But to make thing worse, the quality of the commute has been deteriorating. The failure to invest in transport has meant more crowded and more frequently disrupted journeys in many regions of the country. Recent surveys have also revealed that more and more people are working while they commute, at least in part to cope with increased workload.
Once we take into account all these dimensions, it becomes evident that the "cost of living crisis" is only one – albeit important – part of a broader problem that is afflicting most people in Britain.
Despite the graveness of the situation, this wider crisis – perhaps we can call it the "general living crisis" – is not seriously discussed because over the last few decades we have come to neglect work as a serious issue.
During this period, most Britons have come to see themselves mainly – or even solely – as consumers, rather than workers. The dominant free-market ideology has convinced them that consumption is the ultimate goal of life, and that their work is only a means to gaining the income to buy the goods and services to derive pleasure from. At the same time, the decline of the trade union movement has made many people believe that being a "worker" is something of an anachronism.
As a result, policies are narrowly focused on generating higher income, while any suggestion that we spend money on making jobs more secure and work less stressful, if it is ever made, is dismissed as naive. Yet this neglect of work-related life is absurd when most adults of working age devote more than half their waking hours to their jobs – especially if we include the time spent in commuting and, increasingly, out-of-hours work. We simply cannot ignore this when judging how well we are doing.
If we are to deal with the "general living crisis" we need to radically change our perspectives on what is a good life. We need to accept that consumption is not the end goal of our life, and stop measuring our wellbeing simply on the basis of earnings. We need to explicitly take the quality of our work-related life into account in judging our wellbeing. Let's start taking work seriously.