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McJobs are getting better, but politicians must work harder | Stefan Stern

It is easy to talk about ‘hard-working families’, but the party that offers real dignity in labour will win their votes

To motherhood and apple pie we must add a new, sacred category: “hard-working families”. Few political speeches omit a reference to them. Do you belong to a slovenly, workshy family? Keep your head down. Your sort isn’t wanted around here.

Work, or the lack of it, looks set to become the most heavily debated issue of 2012. As unemployment rises and with it insecurity for those in work, a return of consumer confidence seems unlikely. Economic recovery will be delayed. Youth unemployment in particular is a cause for concern.

So the news this week that McDonald’s is creating another 2,500 jobs might have been seen as something entirely positive. Even the presence of Nick Clegg at the launch should not have been enough to undermine the happy announcement. But this development has prompted the return of another familiar debate: on the quality of working life, and the kind of jobs that are on offer today.

McDonald’s has fought a long and only partially successful campaign against the “McJob” label. It is not fashionable to say so but the company has a point. Training and development are on offer there, along with the chance to snaffle a daily Big Mac. A significant proportion of senior management started their McDonald’s career behind the counter. The business is that extremely rare thing – a meritocracy.

And yet the feeling persists that jobs like these fall some way short of what we should be aiming to generate in this country. It was a coincidence of timing that, just as the good news emerged from the burger business, an oil refinery in Coryton in Essex looked likely to close, with 1,000 skilled jobs at risk. And this on the back of an announcement from BAE Systems that it was considering the future of its Portsmouth shipbuilding and maintenance operation (another 3,000 jobs). It is a familiar economic pattern: decent prospects in parts of the retail and service sector for some, gloom for manufacturers and providers of higher skilled work.

If “hard-working families” are our aspirational role model there really has to be some work available. But as research from the Resolution Foundation has confirmed, it is precisely these “hard-working families” who are under great financial pressure. Wages are flat. And if the only jobs growth on offer is in the lower-paid, less stimulating, lower-skilled parts of the economy, then the prospects for both economic and general wellbeing are not good.

When they have not been praising hard-working families, the three party leaders have been ruminating recently on the future of capitalism. But they have failed, so far, to join the dots between the everyday anxieties of working people and the big picture stuff being discussed this week at Davos. Never mind “responsible capitalism”: how are we going to earn a living? And how are we going to be treated at work?

Maybe the political parties don’t believe there are many votes in it (the debate on the benefits cap has been largely about punishment). But there seems to be precious little discussion, outside the trade unions, of what we want working life to look like in this era of globalisation. Should we forget about the idea of work being something meaningful? Is “the dignity of labour” now just a concept for museums and history books? This week Apple reported sensational profits, even as the tales of monstrous working hours and conditions at their Chinese factories continued to flow in. Are we happy about that? Is anyone in power discussing this at all? Perhaps the prime minster should spend a bit less time mastering computer games on his iPad and instead think a bit harder about the people who assembled it on the other side of the world.

At its best, work civilises. It creates wealth. It provides an anchor and identity. There should be dignity in labour, whether you are cooking hamburgers, teaching French or trading shares. But if we surrender quietly to an “inevitable” process of deskilling we will be doing ourselves and future generations immense harm, both financially and psychologically. And the politician who most convincingly describes an alternative future with a better quality of working life at its heart will strike electoral gold. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds