Tag Archives: working

Living Wages, Green Wages

Depending on who exactly you ask and where exactly you live, a living wage in the UK is £9 -£10.55

The minimum wage in the UK for people over 25, is £8.21 per hour. The government website tells us ‘An apprentice aged 22 in the first year of their apprenticeship is entitled to a minimum hourly rate of £3.90.’ https://www.gov.uk/national-minimum-wage-rates – There are clearly working people in the UK not earning the minimum wage.

So, first up, it’s important to acknowledge that people under 25 get a minimum wage that isn’t the same as everyone else’s and is a long way short of the living wage. Self employed people can’t (speaking from experience) always earn minimum wage and as companies seem ever more inclined to turn employees into self employed freelancers, that wage pressure increases.

How is the living wage calculated? According to https://www.livingwage.org.uk/calculation  “MIS asks groups to identify what people need to be able to afford as a minimum. This is fed into a calculation of what someone needs to earn as a full-time salary, which is then converted to an hourly rate.”

The first obvious point to make is that the living wage is based on the idea of the minimum needed to live – so the minimum wage set by government falls short of that for everyone – with massive implications – and for the under 25s to a degree that is alarming. Many people are not earning enough to live on, with all that this implies for their quality of life and their scope to choose. Also, if you can’t work full time – caring commitments, poor health etc, you probably can’t earn enough to live on, because that hourly rate depends on the assumption that you are able to work full time. If you’re on a zero hour contract, you may well not be working full time every week.

What people need to be able to afford as a minimum will not allow you to buy organic food – which is always more expensive. It won’t allow you to always pick out the more expensive fair trade and plastic free options. For this money, you will not be able to afford a state of the art electric car easily. You may have no choice but to buy clothes that aren’t so good for the environment. Things that will last longer and are more efficient may well be out of your price range. A living wage is not a green wage, it is not enough money to be able to make all the best ethical choices and still live.

If we want to pursue a green agenda, it is absolutely necessary not to have people priced out in this way. Environmental justice requires social justice. You can’t pay over the odds for greener goods if your income only covers the basics, or doesn’t even stretch that far.

I’ve been looking online to see if anyone has calculated the minimum wage for affording to live greenly – I’ve not found anything. If you know of any good sources, please leave comments.

Working hours and mental health

One of the things I worry about, because I suffer from assorted physical issues and poor mental health, is not being able to work like a ‘normal’ person. This can mean pushing harder to try and do at least as much as I think a person in regular employment would do. Whatever that means.

Last autumn I established that I can do 40-50 hour weeks. I sustained that kind of workload for about five months. I watched it undermine my physical health and wipe out my mental health. On reflection, I don’t think is purely because I was fragile to begin with, but because long working hours are detrimental to mental health.

A long day leaves a person with no energy in the evening – or what’s left of it. You can only recover. If you can recover. You can’t do anything much to lift, cheer and sustain yourself. It is difficult being sociable or physically active when you are exhausted. The same thing happens with weekends – if you can take them. Being too tired to do anything much and not even having the energy to try and think of something it might be good to do.

In a counterpoint to this, I’ve seen a few articles floating about online regarding companies who have cut down to four day weeks without cutting pay. Productivity and enthusiasm go up. Sick days are reduced. Happier and more motivated staff turn out to be better workers.

When you are exhausted, it is harder to make good decisions. It is harder to plan for the long term or to take the time to examine your work life balance. Exhaustion as your normal state, is a toxic condition to live with. It sucks the joy out of life and turns everything into a chore that will take energy you can’t afford. Exhaustion makes it harder to engage with others, harder to care and harder to give. When you feel under-resourced, you are more easily persuaded of scarcity and the need to make sure you are protecting yourself from others. Exhaustion makes us easier to control.

When you have energy and time in which to deploy it, you can make more informed life choices. You aren’t just fighting for the next breath or staggering towards the next sleep. People who feel well resourced feel more able to share and give and are less likely to be frightened or persuaded by emotive, unevidenced arguments promoting hatred and division.

As the UK has shuffled towards the brexit cliff edge, I’ve noticed how many people I know are simply exhausted. I hear myself saying ‘just make it stop’, conscious that torture works by getting people to the point where they will do anything, say anything to make it stop. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Exhaustion works in much the same way. We don’t make our best choices when we are exhausted, and when we would do anything to just stop suffering for a little while.

Wonderful, unvirtuous creatures

We tend to think in terms of utility – we do it to landscapes, creatures and other humans. We ascribe virtue to anything that serves us, and label as useless anything that does not. Bees are industrious and virtuous because we like them as pollinators and take their honey. No one cares how busy wasps might be because we don’t think they help us, and therefore they are not virtuous and industrious, they are a bloody nuisance.

Similar things happen with cats and dogs. Humans have a long history of working with dogs. Even when we aren’t getting them to specifically work for us, they do what we tell them. They may defend our persons and property from attack. We can train them to tolerate considerable abuse and still treat us with love in return for it. Therefore dogs are good and virtuous. Cats, on the other hand, are lazy. We’ve worked with them because their eating mice can be useful, but they don’t do it on command and if you abuse a cat, it will leave. They are not team players, they do not take orders and they aren’t that interested in keeping us happy.

Why do so many of us choose to live with cats, if cats are selfish, ungrateful bastards? But here’s the thing – cats aren’t inherently mean or unpleasant, but they have boundaries. They don’t tend to bestow affection on total strangers, they expect to be treated well, and if they are happy, they express that by being pleased to see you, purring, making body contact and so forth.

Cats do not work. There is no way to train them up as beasts of burden or doers of jobs. Being small, lithe and pointy makes non-cooperation easy for them. A cat has no interest in doing anything unnecessary, anything that is not pleasing to it. Find a warm place, stretch out or curl up. Enjoy. Eat. Play with things, stare out of windows. Sing. Cats tend to have simple, uncluttered lives, and to be happy.

If we stopped measuring virtue in terms of workishness and use to humans, and started looking at happiness in other creatures, our whole view would change. We’d notice how the busy bees rapidly work themselves to death. We’d notice that cats tend to be enormously happy, and if they aren’t, they leave if they possibly can. It’s not an accident that we use the term ‘fat cat’ to describe a big company boss with a lot of wealth. However, actual cats, fat and otherwise, own nothing. Yes, they quietly take advantage of our homes, but I’ve met plenty of feral cats along the way, and they know how to find the warm spots and they make the time to sunbathe. Being a cat is a way of life that does not depend on human benevolence.

Most mammals, left to their own devices, try to rest, sleep, sunbathe and play as much as they can, and only do what’s necessary. The ‘hives of industry’ involve insects – ants and bees especially. We’re mammals. Why have we decided it is virtuous to emulate insects, and lazy to live like a mammal?

Learning to stop

I took a day off, yesterday. Almost a whole day (I sorted some laundry). This is rare for me. Normally, a day off is something that happens at a rate of one or two in a month, and means not putting the computer on. Instead I’ll end up doing a lot of domesticated things, or, in the case of September, the 21 mile epic of the five valleys walk.

It was tough in the morning. I felt like I should be doing something. (That was why I put laundry away). I wafted about a lot. What does a person do when they aren’t busy doing things that need doing or that are their work life or other people need? In the end I settled on a project that had been lying around for months – adapting a long strappy dress into a top with sleeves. Sleeved summer tops and dresses have been elusive to say the least. I hadn’t got round to it because overhauling a garment for me is a bit of a frivolous thing (trust me, it is a frivolous garment). I then spent the afternoon with friends, food and a film, and that was very relaxed and lovely.

By the time I got home last night, I was aware of a distinct physical change. My body had calmed to an unfamiliar degree. My mind had slowed as well. Often my thoughts ping about in fairly erratic ways and at high speeds – the mindset required for juggling kittens and chainsaws – which tends to be how it feels. There was nothing to juggle last night. Nothing that needed doing.

Back in January 2014, I was at a protest with a bunch of people who were talking about how nice it had been to have some days off. I’d had Christmas day off, but otherwise it had been work as usual. I hadn’t stopped, I didn’t feel refreshed and ready to dive back in. There just hadn’t been a break in my workflow and I couldn’t see how to make one. Plus, being a self employed person means a week off is a week not earning, and I’ve not felt able to justify that. This year is better. One of my stable jobs pays me for what I do but lets me organise it as I please – I’m not on call, and if I set things up far enough in advance, I can take as many days off as I please.  I saw at that protest how relaxed and cheerful people were, as a consequence of getting a break, and it showed me how different my life was to theirs. The problem with that kind of arrangement is that it will leave you feeling like a second class citizen. Other people are good enough to merit time off…

I’ve had a lot of years dealing with the judgement of others, where being able to demonstrate that I was working hard was something I could use to defend myself. That’s no longer the case, but the habits of anxiety are harder to drop. The habits of fear within my body. The habits of not stopping and not treating myself as entitled to a break. There are things it isn’t so necessary to think about when you’re running flat out. What is this for? What am I doing this for? What is the point of my life? Grief, pain and fear can all be blotted out just by running hard. I’ve always been the sort of person to use work as a way of overcoming and blotting out other issues, and that’s helped me not deal with the other issues.

In stillness, in silence, in not busyness, there is room for other thoughts to surface. Questions, discomfort, existential angst, new ideas; all the checks and balances to a fuller life. Not contemplation held as a formal discipline (although that’s good too and very important to me) but a making of space. A making of space that lets something else in.

Slowing down, again, more

Last week I had the pleasure of reading T Thorn Coyle’s Make Magic of your Life (a splendid book, proper review here – http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/556296405). Some of it was eerily familiar. The words about taking on too much and running too hard, and deciding that just working in the morning is still really a day off, and all those twisted paths that lead to burnout. I’ve written repeatedly about my respect for the slow movement and the importance of slowing down, but reading Make Magic of your Life made me aware that no, I haven’t really done that thing properly. I run hard, and I fall over.

I notice that running hard and falling over is something I dream about, in a literal sort of way.

Then, reading, I found this…

“…larger patterns that turn into obsessions, sometimes leading to marriages, trips around the world, or engagements with projects that end up eating our lives, driving us in unhealthy ways toward narrower and narrower corridors of being, and sometimes leading to explosion or collapse.”

It gave me goosebumps. I used to have a rich dream life, but during my first marriage that dwindled away to a handful of repetitive nightmares. One of them involved me running down narrower and narrower corridors, up ever narrower flights of stairs until there was nothing left to do but jump out of a window, fly or die. In this book, T Thorn Coyle explores the importance of desire, of following the calling of your soul, and what happens when we run round because we feel we should, and when we let other people or our own habits of being pull the strings. I’m going to come back and talk about the desire aspect, but at the moment the slowing down is the issue. I’m so used to pushing my body to exhaustion and beyond, and have a long history of getting into situations where that was expected, and then not getting the hell out of those.

I can slow down. I can take more time for me. If I am ill, I can rest and Tom is brilliant about supporting me. I do not have to do everything now. But I’m still, in part, running down the dwindling corridors because I feel like I should. Even though I know it doesn’t work. I’m a creative person, and my ability to do good work is not about a willingness to grind myself into the floor and work ten hours a day seven days a week. That is not the environment in which creativity thrives. It is a way of becoming much less productive in a matter of weeks. One thing to do a long stint because my head is on fire with inspiration, quite another to sit here churning it out because I feel like I should.

I know, because I’ve tested it, that if I make a point of doing less, what happens is that I achieve more, and the quality goes up. Sure, I could churn out 10,000 words a day if I put my mind to it, but a good 9000 of them would be shit, and after a couple of weeks depression would descend and I wouldn’t even feel able to get out of the duvet. If I write a couple of thousand words that are the best words I could possibly have found that day, there’s a fair chance I end the day with 2000 words I feel proud of. That’s actually double the output. To do my very best work, I have to stop, wait, rest, incubate, think, study, experiment and imagine. I have to gather the raw material. It’s not just about coughing up words.

I do not want to keep running down those corridors.

Since the meltdown that hit me early this year, I’ve been doing better in terms of managing my energy, and improving the quality of my work. Win all round. But I have to keep fighting those little voices that demand more and faster. I am not a machine. There are things to be said about the care and maintenance of geese that lay golden eggs.

Make Magic of Your Life was an affirmation for me on this score. To see someone else; an author who achieves so much and is widely respected, talking about those same issues of overdoing it and burning out, makes me realise that I’m not being stupid in slowing down. It’s not laziness. It’s necessary. I have to fight the rhetoric of the factory floor and the production line to keep doing what I do, but it’s not just me. Slowing down is necessary. Not just for me, but for anyone who wants a life, and to be more than a cog in someone else’s machine.

Dissecting the work issue

I realise it may sound like I live in an ivory tower/boat, doing only fancy things, and that as a consequence that post about being totally demoralised may have sounded a tad self indulgent. I do all sorts of things, many of them mundane, banal, unexciting. This isn’t just a justification exercise though, I’ve sat down and thought hard about the nature of work, and figured out some stuff I think has far wider relevance, so let’s test that and see…

I write under other names too, and in a wide range of genres and forms. I’m not precious about that, I’ve written pub quizzes, custom erotica and reviews of household products along the way. I have worked tills and stacked shelves, I’ve washed glassware and spent long days doing stalls. It’s not all poncing about in celebrant gear and dabbling in philosophy! As a volunteer I’ve painted fences, picked litter, done long data entry sessions… I also edit for cash. And sometimes, for love.

The money aspect is simple. We all need money, and to be paid for your work is generally necessary, and also contributes to self esteem. I had no problem writing pub quizzes. I’d do it now if it came up. When the pay per hour is so low that you can’t live on it, that’s both deeply impractical, and in our cash driven society, does seem like a value judgement. I’d like to support anyone whose work was valuable enough to be paid, but who wasn’t being paid enough to live on, and there’s way too much of that out there.

I can bring a sense of meaning and soul and integrity to any job I do, based on experience to date. That’s about my attitude to work, that I know how to bring those things to the most mundane tasks. I think back to the paper round, and other low-brainers. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it, and I know if I want to feel something is innately valuable, I have to invest the right things. You can do it on a checkout, you can do it cleaning toilets. There aren’t many innately useless, meaningless jobs out there, and if you find one, there are always issues around how the money is deployed. Supporting a family is meaningful. Financing your planned studies, or your bardic work, or travel; there are many paths to meaning, and that’s down to the individual.

So that isn’t the problem either.

I focused my thinking on the volunteer work, because it takes the money out of the equation, and because when you’re volunteering, the innate worth is a given. Some of those jobs made me happier than others. I was happiest picking litter and painting fences. I was least happy in the job that came with a title and apparent status. Why? It all boils down to how I’m being treated. I spent a month working evenings to get the fences painted at my son’s school. It was a huge job, and although I had some help, it was exhausting. But, teachers, and the head, would stop and talk to me, and they kept telling me how much they appreciated what I was doing, how it cheered them up in the mornings seeing the painted fence. I felt wanted, needed, appreciated, and that enabled me to do a long, hard job for no pay, and to take pride in doing it. The two volunteer jobs that gave me a title came with a side order of never feeling trusted, always feeling inferior, no praise, nothing to sustain or enable. It burned me out, and I saw the same organisations burn out and demoralise a number of other good volunteers too. It’s not enough that the work be rewarding. A little respect, praise, recognition and encouragement make a world of difference.

I took this back to my current working situation. There are places where I feel like a loved and valued member of the team, and places I don’t. There are places where communications have been poor and I’ve been demoralised by this, but, those are fixing so hopefully I will feel better about what I do there. Working for someone who values me is a joy. There are people for whom I would happily wash dishes and fetch coffees if that was where they needed me to fit. I don’t need to feel super-important, I need to feel that my bit, whatever it is, matters, has a use to someone, and is recognised. That comes through, or doesn’t, in the smallest nuances of interaction. Recognising what’s going on here, I shall vote with my feet, where I need to.

It’s all about getting to be a person, and being treated like a person. I’ve worked in a small production space that was fun and happy, even though I was just washing and packaging. The culture of a workplace may be the most important thing. Places where they time and restrict loo breaks, constantly monitor, harass and demand, these are soul sapping. Such employers ask you to be a machine, not a person. There are some people who, seeing writing purely as a ‘product’ want authors to be well behaved little machines that make product. Any employer, in any business who in any way wants their worker to act like a machine, is an abomination. Human respect, human dignity, human expression are, I think, what makes the differences between workplaces that are good spaces to be in, and workplaces that grind you down and make you feel like shit. With the right employer and the right people, the most mundane job can be a joy. And with the wrong person, the most lovely and heartfelt project can be turned into a miserable act of drudgery. Been there. Not doing that again.