The human cost of flexible labour

This article was first published on the Open Democracy website on 24 October 2011. We are grateful to permission to republish it.

Unemployment hit a 17-year high in the three months prior to August. That’s headline stuff. Short-term employment is less noticed. In the same period, more people than ever before (as number and proportion) reclaimed Job Seekers Allowance less than six months after their last claim. Over half of men claimants are in that situation, and about a third of women. Disabled job-seekers are proportionally likelier to be in this situation. These are people of an insecure world, the ‘precariat’. (See Guy Standing’s The Precariat: the new dangerous class.)

This trend towards short-term ‘flexible’ working is economic and social folly, in the long term if not the short. Having spent many years largely out of the labour market through mental disorder, I know how destructive insecure work can be.

Generalisation is perilous. In many small and larger firms, recession-driven redundancy apart, employment remains relatively stable. The thrust, though, is towards flexibility.

This is driven by technology: digitisation makes continual modification affordable and hence competitively necessary. Workers must adapt to technology, not the other way round. They must be quick-learners, or readily disposable, or both.

It’s also been driven by rising shareholder power since the 1970s. Corporate investors typically look to immediate profits. In 1965 US pension funds held stocks for an average of 46 months; by 2000 the comparable figure was 3.8 months. (R. Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism). Management must prioritise today’s share price or risk hostile buy-out. That depends on labour flexibility. Even voluntary-sector agencies must hire and fire to fit funding requirements.

The flexible workforce is integral to LibCon growth strategies. ‘We will review employment and workplace laws, for employers and employees, to ensure they maximise flexibility for both parties while protecting fairness and providing the competitive environment required for enterprise to thrive’, said the Coalition Agreement. The Chancellor’s announcement that (save for discrimination claims) people must work twice as long for their employer before being protected by Employment Tribunals came straight out of the flexible employment manual.

What does this mean for people returning to the workforce, particularly those with mental health problems?

‘The positive link between employment and mental health is proven… In contrast, there is evidence that the longer individuals are absent or out of work, the more likely they are to experience depression and anxiety. Satisfying work can therefore play a vital role in improving everyone’s well-being and mental health.’ (DWP/DH, Working our way to better mental health: a framework for action, December 2009).

I agree, on conditions. I only began to regain some sense of my stable ‘self’ after finding work with Cambridge Citizens Advice Bureau. Income and its self-respect matters hugely; employment can also represent structure, an outlet for energies, hope of a future, colleagueship. You may no longer have to fudge answers to ‘what do you do?’ or, devastatingly, ‘what are you?’

But there’s work and work. Insecure, low-paid work means none of these. Precarians are a world apart from skilled, well-networked professionals who thrive on mobility. Job Seekers Allowance requires you – after an initial few weeks – to accept any ‘reasonable’ offer. You must become whatever is demanded, unable to build a personal skill-set, devoid of colleagueship. You’ve still no answer to ‘what do you do?’, let alone “what are you?”

For any returnee, this is tough: the endlessly repeated angst of facing the unknown, being tested, knowing there’s no time for learning by mistakes. A mistake too many and you return to Go. For many, it’s impossible. Minister of State Chris Grayling recently talked on the Today programme about Universal Credit helping young people to take that critical ‘first step’ into work. He’s out of touch. There is no one ‘first step’ but a whole series of them. These may, for the securer person, build confidence. For the less secure, being burnt doesn’t callous the skin but makes it raw.

Anxiety and depression were my bugbears, along with a few obsessive compulsions. Being unable to connect with the world around is terrifying. This is not about something being difficult or unpleasant, nor about feeling a bit down or fuzzy-headed. It’s about impossibility. About struggling to make that muscle called ‘brain’ move, but being paralysed. Many of us know what it’s like to be ‘not here’ (‘derealisation’ in the jargon); to sort-of know that ‘I’ am ‘walking along the road’. Many of us know the grip of compulsions which must be obeyed before all else, and/or the addictions – to alcohol, drugs, eating or not eating – whose claws are no less sharp.

Neither paralysis nor compulsion can be wished or disciplined away, nor will they vanish on exposure to the thing that’s feared. If only they would. Many of us keep hoping, trying to force ourselves to master them. Many flog themselves (or cut themselves, or drink) in bitter self-contempt.

Anxiety is part of life. ‘One in four has mental health problems’ says the Time to Change campaign. But difference in degree becomes difference in kind. A physical illness like arthritis can be uncomfortable or disabling. So can anxiety. There are ways to ease the effects of both. But unlike arthritis, recovery from mental illness is often to a large degree possible – at the right pace, with the right environment.

The flexible workplace is wrong in both. It sustains the fear. For obsessives, control by others is a consuming terror. Fear of not coping can dominate for years. Familiarity can ease the strain, reducing the unknowns, allowing coping mechanisms to evolve. One can develop a work persona, invaluable to most of us as protection and tool. Above all, time may allow the growth of trust and respect, in others and in self. But time is what the flexible workplace denies.

I talked up my skills to get a job, then faced the brain-numbing expectations of a fast-driving employer. I wasn’t asked back. Such ‘first steps’ can destroy. People on JSA have to undergo them again and again. Being lucky in my support systems, I could restart as a volunteer, then creep onwards via undemanding admin work. I didn’t dread abject dismissal when my mind would not work. I could return to volunteer status without question or loss of respect, still with a possible way forward. So I climbed – as securely as I could – out of the pit.

Employment & Support Allowance is supposed to give such space, though in practice it’s far tighter. The minute you can do some kind of work, that’s what you have to do. That work is usually short-term, never secure. So now a record number of people must “take the plunge” again and again, never knowing colleagueship, never having hope of sustained progression, emotionally or professionally. Never being granted the respect we all deserve until proven otherwise. Most unemployed people I meet desperately want to work. They don’t need sanctions and conditionality to force them into it. They need the security and opportunity which our economic model does not provide.

Flexible work is a good formula for ensuring a captive supply of cheap, low-grade employees. It supports the short-termism that has maimed many leading companies but pleased the City. It promotes festering resentments against both the privileged rich and the competing poor, especially immigrants. It condemns many to a lifetime of fear, poverty and loss of hope.

No economic model is inevitable. We set our priorities. Fiscal incentives and regulation can encourage investment in employees. Unions can reshape themselves as long-term home-bases for precarians. A tax-funded basic income can give people security for take-off. Respect and trust can replace stigma and sanctions.

Nor is democratic freedom inevitable. I am afraid of the inequalities growing in our society: the resentments, fears and angers. I am afraid of where indifference to these realities, in government and the comfortable classes, is leading us.

Post-war European peace was built, however imperfectly, on a commitment to investment in all classes, investing in them, respecting them and allowing them to insure against calamity. In renewed time of upheaval, we need to make a similar commitment.