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The decade when Work became God


STOP blaming the smartphone for all of life’s ills. This is what rugged individualism looks like. Deal with it. 

As the decade comes to a close there are many think pieces on what was its big bang moment: Brexit, #MeToo, Trump are all held up as defining movements. But what seems to dominate are the smartphone and social media, the twin evils of our time. 

In the Times, Clare Foges tells us: ‘Smartphones, social media and self-service, coupled with the erosion of civic spaces, have left us more isolated than ever.’  

Social media has been blamed for teenage suicides and for turning politics ugly. 

Similarly it has polarised us, made us more extreme and ‘stolen the middle ground’. 

It is also believed to be behind a reduction in the amount of sex couples are having. 

I could go on. First things first: I am not a big defender or indeed user of social media. I use Twitter but I long ago disconnected my Facebook account. Facebook was also blamed for a decline in sex and as I like to say, neither my husband nor I have Facebook accounts but we do have three kids. 

I do think social media giants are pretty evil and am neutral on government regulation of them. I can see the problem but I don’t have the energy to defend them either. Many social media sites are indeed built to be highly addictive, are highly morally dubious and again if government wanted to ban all the porn sites I wouldn’t have a problem with that either – I leave that to the blokes at Guido Fawkes and the Adam Spliff Institute to get frustrated about. 

But what I will say is that ultimately the smartphone, Facebook, the internet porn, the political rage, are all symptoms of something far greater: the need, the very human need, to fill that deep crater inside us all with human connection. 

Clare Foges is right to say: ‘From the Arab Spring to the #MeToo movement, technology was hailed as a great force for connecting humanity — but although the ease of social media promised to bring us together, the numbers reporting loneliness rose.’ Indeed. Loneliness continues to rise and the reason for this is not the inanimate object called the smartphone. The smartphone is just a thing. It cannot make you do anything, it doesn’t have legs and walk into your hands. No, it’s the loneliness that makes many reach for the smartphone, and people are lonely because the private sphere is shrinking. 

Clare also rightly notes that ‘the civic spaces we once shared shrank dramatically. Libraries, community centres, Sure Starts, youth clubs, leisure centres and playing fields closed by the week. Whether you blame austerity or inept financial management by local authorities, the result is a sad whittling away of places where people can meet and be together.’ 

What Clare misses is the even smaller, more intimate space, from which all these people pop out from: the family has also shrunk. The last decade has seen the private sphere, the family, marriage, and mothering take a hammering from all sides. 

On the Right, the market was unleashed demanding that even mothers of very young children be marched back to work once baby turns one. Even 20 years ago this would have been unthinkable if not considered downright cruel. Today we have Conservative governments hailing how fabulous it is that all these toddlers are in nurseries so their mothers can get back to work. 

The Left, although traditionally uneasy about the market ripping through what was once seen as sacred, was cornered by the feminists who for different but also ideological reasons wanted women to get back to work, babies be damned. This would make mothers independent from men, and men from women and soon we could squeeze men out of the picture altogether. I don’t think this is what most working-class families actually want and I hazard a guess that the fact it is now next to impossible to raise a family modestly on a single income is one reason, one reason out of many, why many Labour voters turned blue. 

Truly, the last decade was when the private sphere was sacrificed to the world of work. This last decade saw workism become king. Not work per se: I’m a big defender of the dignity of work. No, I’m talking about workism, the idea that work is one of your gods, that what you do is who you are and makes you a better person. 

Even the Left-of-centre Atlantic understands this: ‘For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity – promising transcendence and community, but failing to deliver.’ 

I believe this is as true in the UK as it is in the US. 

Further, it is the college-educated elite that drives policy according to its values. This is why the private sphere has been attacked and loneliness has increased. The values of the elite are rarely ‘Go home to your husband or wife’, or ‘Take some time out from your career to look after your toddler’. No, most of the elite are Workists, through and through. On retiring from politics, Nicky Morgan said she never once made a PTA meeting. This is from a former Minister for Education. Imagine never making a PTA meeting, ever? 

These members of the elite are spending more time at the office not because they have to, or need the money. It’s because they want to. Work is their god. As the Atlantic says: ‘Workism may have started with rich men, but the ethos is spreading – across gender and age. In a 2018 paper on elite universities, researchers found that for women, the most important benefit of attending a selective college isn’t higher wages, but more hours at the office.’  For elite women, the mantra is: ‘I quit getting married and having kids so I could spend more time at the office.’ And it is true that in the US both marriage and fertility rates are on a downward spiral. 

The Atlantic goes on, presenting an astonishing statistic: ‘What’s more, in a recent Pew Research report on the epidemic of youth anxiety, 95 per cent of teens said “having a job or career they enjoy” would be “extremely or very important” to them as an adult. This ranked higher than any other priority, including “helping other people who are in need” (81 per cent) or getting married (47 per cent). Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.’ 

Let’s just say that last frightening sentence once again: ‘Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.’ 

So there we have it. The attack from both the Left and Right on the private sphere has exalted the public sphere to a level once reserved for such goods as family, spouses, children and God. 

For the rising generation, if life doesn’t happen in the public sphere, it doesn’t happen. But ultimately it is difficult to attain that deep human connection and fulfilment from work alone. That’s why people reach for the smartphone. That’s why people scroll through Tinder. And don’t expect things to change any time soon, either. For now, Workism rules, OK? 

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