Chatting Critically to Young People About …. Work.

Vulgar though it may be, we’ve argued consistently that the educational system in its essentials serves the interests of the capitalist order. The proposal that the school is a social factory, charged with producing in Marx’s phrase, ‘labour-power’ – the willingness and ability to work –  continues to hold good. Of course the particular character of the process within the school-as-factory is not set in concrete. For example, across the period of the post-war social-democratic consensus,  it can be argued that a purely instrumental curriculum was softened in many ways by a liberal commitment to personal and social awareness. However this enlightened emphasis has been under attack for the last three decades. Across these years the irony is that Youth Work  [part of the factory whatever its protests] sought initially to resist this onslaught, fending off  in the 80’s the Manpower Service Commission’s effort to impose the programmes of Social and Life Skills Training, only to succumb under New Labour to playing out its role in preparing  directly young people for the world of work.

And yet, as we write these words, the economic crisis churns up crisis elsewhere. Thus the Alexander Review of primary education calls for teachers to be freed of targets, concluding that a narrow curricular emphasis is impoverishing. In this context it seems reasonable for youth workers to cast off the shackles of  prescribed outcomes linked to economic well-being, a pathetic euphemism for employability as seen through the eyes of the bosses.


And in doing so, it would be refreshing to chat with young people about what is work under capitalism; to ponder the work ethic; and to wonder if there are different ways of understanding what work might be?

For starters the following pieces throw up a host of questions and are still well worth reading.


Back in 1932 Bertrand Russell in his opening paragraph to ‘In Praise of Idleness’ called on Youth Work to reconsider its attitude to young people and work.

Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying: “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I was told, and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. Everyone knows the story of the traveller in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveller was on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the Y.M.C.A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.


As for Len Bracken, he’s hardly as famous as Bertrand and his Aphorisms Against Work are hardly consistent. On the other hand he provides a feast of one-liners, many of which  could spark  a crackling, critical conversation.

Published in: on February 24, 2009 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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