Editorial from Thursday 2 SeptemberThroughout the Celtic Tiger years we were told that the rising tide was lifting all boats, and the lot of every sector in society was improving as a consequence of the genius of our bankers and the Government. There are a number of untruths in that sentence, but you can pick those out for yourself.
Even during those years, there was doubt about the kind of work we value. Carers, for example, fought long and hard for recognition of the work they do every day. Most of these carers are women, and they’re caring for family members, friends or neighbours. Many of them were unpaid, while even now they receive an ‘allowance’ and not a salary, despite the work they do being the most important work, on a human level, that anybody can do.
Of course, to convince the Government – and the electorate – that this work was worth paying for, it was necessary to reduce it to numbers. €2.5 billion is the value, in monetary terms, of carers’ work to the economy each year. How much is a hug worth, or a kind gesture, or daily personal contact?
Voluntary work has also come under this kind of scrutiny over the past few years – with various interest groups and politicians coming out with numbers to quantify the work done by tidy towns committees, fundraising groups, community activists and volunteer sports coaches, among others.
But among all this talk of economic benefit we seem to have lost sight of the fact that this is supposed to be a society, not an economy. Economic benefit is a good thing, but is not the only thing we have to think about.
What about social benefit? What about individual benefit?
Work is essentially a positive thing. The right kind of work for the person can be rewarding, challenging, even life-affirming. People who feel rewarded and challenged are a benefit to society – and if they enjoy their work, they are more likely to be good at it, thus conferring that economic benefit everybody is harping on about.
The announcement that the Department of Social Protection has come up with a scheme of community work for people who claiming Jobseekers’ benefit should be, I think, a welcome one. Old-fashioned as this may sound, making a contribution to your community cannot be a bad thing.
While the dignity of unemployed people must be respected, this is not a ‘Famine’ scheme. People will not be chain-ganged or forced to break rocks, as some hysterical reactions will have you believe. Work can bring its own dignity; human interaction, giving something back to society, and a reason to get up in the morning.
The scheme is not perfect – it’s not going to give people €50k salaries, power and influence or the ability to afford a holiday. But it’s a start. And, with the alternatives reduced to emigrating or sitting at home for many people, it’s better than nothing.
The notion of work - paid work, unpaid work, work in the home, homework – is a fluid one, dependent on place and time and individual preferences. Studying sociology in college I learned about the concept of paid for work versus unpaid (largely, women’s) work. One person’s pointless meandering through Facebook is another person’s dayjob – while mucking out horses may be fun for some but is definitely work for others.