Bokförlaget Atlas, 2015.
Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2015:2
Review Section: Non-fiction
The public has responded swiftly to Vi bara lyder. It is selling very well and was a media success story from the start, much discussed and blogged about; someone even created a two-and-a-half hour long dramatisation for marionettes. ‘Popular non-fiction’ is normally about things like cooking or celebrities but the trade’s assumptions are sometimes wrong-footed by an unusual subject and/ or author. Vi bara lyder is a provocative retelling of Roland Paulsen’s study of Sweden’s Public Employment Service and comes complete with learned asides and a brief list of references. Paulsen has a doctorate in sociology and has written academic works on contemporary job markets and work places, including his recent Empty Labour.
All this may sound dry, but consider how you think about your job, as well as the jobs that others do. Simple questions such as ‘Am I happy at work?’, ‘If not, why not?’ and ‘How would I react to becoming jobless?’ touch deep-seated attitudes.Sweeping generalisations about the virtue of work, what is deemed to be ‘real’ work and the importance of being ‘productive’ influence political decision-making. One of Paulsen’s aims is to make us re-evaluate our personal take on conventional wisdom.
Another aim is to clarify what current labour market regulations are intended to do and what they actually achieve, socioeconomic concerns that are as pertinent in the UK as in Sweden. Paulsen hints at his arguments in a framing narrative about his father, who became jobless and couldn’t believe his luck when the local Job Centre arranged for him to do what he really wanted: train to be a chef. A qualified success story because – as we later learn – it ended with alienation, drudgery and work-related illness. Even so, it is a fairly benign introduction to Job Centres.The picture darkens as Paulsen discusses the broader social contexts of work placements, backed by accounts of his interviews with job seekers, Centre staff and their bosses, conversations that are sad and funny by turns, and convincingly empathetic.
All Paulsen’s interviewees are victims caught in a flawed organisational framework with so many intrinsic absurdities that they have to rebel, one way or another. Most of the acts of rebellion are low-key and passive- aggressive. The unemployed grumble about the hoops they are made to jump through – CV writing, pep talks, meaningless internships – and cheat when they can.The bureaucrats grumble about the grumpy unemployed and the bizarre rulings ‘from above’, and also cheat whenever necessary. A case in point is the authorities’ insistence on ‘green figures’, denoting successful placements of job seekers while ‘red figures’, i.e. growing cadres of jobless at a Job Centre, lead to penalties. However, since there are 10 unemployed for every listed job, all the staff can do is try to cope with the fundamental impossibility of what is demanded of them: ‘We just do what we’re told – end of’.
Paulsen argues that, to most people, work is either hard and repetitive, or an empty way of passing time, because globalisation and ever-smarter technology have eroded ‘real work’. A key data set – though it has been disputed – indicates that genuine job satisfaction places you in a minority of less than 15% of the population in the West. However, the most alarming development is that a large and growing section of the workforce can find nothing at all to do, satisfying or not. Nonetheless, a lingering work ethic, boosted by widespread distaste at the idea of paying out hard-earned cash to ‘the idle’, means that there is a powerful political and bureaucratic conspiracy to get the unemployed ‘back to work’.
Paulsen is aware that he is privileged as someone highly trained for a fairly secure job that he actually enjoys. Of course, he also belongs to a subgroup of specialists to whom we look for answers. His central idea is a universal Basic Wage, a proposition that is far from new to his peers but generally seen as ultra- radical.The promise of a certain income would ease the fear of poverty, set us free from the job-related pressures that make so many literally ‘sick with worry’ and allow us to ‘unlock the potential of leisure time’.
Everyone, whether happily or unhappily employed, or jobless, should read this book for its thought-provoking, crisply delivered arguments, as well as for interesting and often moving human stories.