I dunno – what’s it pay?

I have a question. There are a number of songs from the late Seventies/early Eighties Britain proclaiming the singer doesn’t want a job. It seems more literal than rhetorical – the lyrics aren’t about wanting to bang on the drum all day; they’re about not wanting specific employment, or digging welfare.

Most famously, probably, would be The Clash’s Career Opportunities: “Do you wanna make tea at the BBC? Do you really wanna be a cop?” And then the song that got me thinking about this topic was one my little sister recorded in the spring. Wham Rap celebrates being “a soul boy – a dole boy” and turning down work to have more time to par-tay. “So they promised you a good job? No Way!”

I’m not judging here. Just wondering: what was the situation there? I know those were the UK’s Thatcher years, and that things were shitty for the unwealthy. Maybe it’s as simple as the undignified choice between taking welfare and working for a non-living wage – as in Ice T’s New Jack Hustler: “…imagine that: me working at Mickey Ds!”

But some of the objectionable jobs in these British tunes are not that bad. Being a cop? Working at the post-office? Bus Driver – Ticket Inspector – Ambulance Man! These are respectable jobs, aren’t they? Last week, listening to the Messthetics records, I found this one by Scissor Fits about not wanting to work for the British Airways. It’s a sucky song, but for interest’s sake, here it is:

I Don’t Wanna Work for British Airways

So what is the dealio? What’s the context? I’ve looked around a bit, but my search skills aren’t amazing. I put “why were young people turning down decent jobs in Britain in the early 80s?” into google, but no dice. If you happen to read this, and you happen to know the answer, fill me in.



I got an excellent email explanation from a friend who read this post and knew the answer to my question. Here it is – thanks very much to Johnny LaRue. This is him:

” Saw your post about the “work sucks” songs.

No expert here, but I think the poor economy in the UK, combined with the class system and the dole culture, and mixed with some naïve adolescent posturing, had a lot to with it. Life of the working class in the UK was pretty bleak. You worked, had a council flat, took your allotted vacation time and then retired to bingo and then died. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, even though you worked, you were on a pretty tight income. While Canada and the US economies boomed in the 70’s, Britain’s was in turmoil. (Hell, compared to ours, Britain’s economy had been in turmoil since WWII. Why else would my grandfather come here in the 60’s with 5 bucks in his pocket and a wife and kid back home?) The standard of living in the UK in the 70s was way below ours. Unemployment was up and so was inflation. I remember visiting my great-grandparents in 1978 and they used the electric heater as a toaster and my great-grandma was still employed as a housekeeper. And it seemed like everyone in their ‘hood was in a similar situation, because hoods were very segregated. Which is no different than in North America, right? Sure, except for the fact that while North Americans have always been suckered into believing in the American dream, the class system in Britain was such that there was no fooling yourself: if you worked in the post office, you knew that you were gonna work in the post office for the rest of your life. (Plus the school system in the UK was [is] very different from here. You made major career decisions at about 15, and your social class influenced those decisions; if dad had a trade, then by 16 you’d be in trade school. And of course there was no support for going back to school or switching careers somewhere down the line.) So lots of kids in the 70s saw their parents work their lives away for very little and simply said fuck it. I don’t want that to be me.

One reason that enabled them to say fuck it was because of Britain’s social security system. Being on the dole in Britain was a uniquely British experience and it shouldn’t be confused with being on unemployment or welfare in Canada. (It’s not to be confused with the Mike Harris, “Gawdamn this welfare state” welfare state. And the east coast experience is an entire different culture.) Whether you come at it from the left or the right, it was a tangled mess and many politicians in the 70s looked at the poor economy and pointed a finger at the huge welfare state.

So combine a well-plotted (ouch) future with an emerging political class that blamed a portion of the countries economic problems on the “welfare state” and what’s a punk to do? You want to rebel against your parents and the man? (Or Margaret.) Don’t get a job. Stay on the dole and piss them both off. You can thumb your nose at the destiny your parents envisioned for you (being a plumber) and bait the powers that be. You callin’ me a bum? I’ll show you a bum.

Although it’s not like life on the dole was much fun, as you really were broke and your future was pretty bleak. But compared to turning into your old man? Both were traps: “In 1977 I hope I go to heaven/’Cos I been too long on the dole/And I can’t work at all.” Now, when they sing, “I can’t work at all” is he bemoaning unemployment or the life that society wanted him to live? It could be both. (Lucky for Clash, they had a ticket out.) However, in Career Opportunities they clearly seem to be giving the finger to living the straight life and all that that entails.

Which is, of course, naïve and adolescent. In fact, it can be seen as insulting, because here are these supposedly working-class heroes pissing on their working class heritage by not acknowledging the nobility of the working class. (Yes, that’s an ugly sentence.) It’s especially naïve and adolescent from our point-of-view, where a career and a house and a hobby are sort of the Holy Grail. What, you mean I get a little patch of garden too?

Which is why something like Career Opportunities should be taken with a grain of salt, because while I’d argue that class and economic realities shaped its expression, so did naivety and good old r’n’r hyperbole. As Strummer himself said, “I’d like to think the Clash were revolutionaries, but we loved a bit of posing as well.”

So, yeah, UK’s poor economy, class system, and dole culture (which are all obviously interconnected), plus adolescent rebellion. That’s how I’d explain it or at least make sense of it in a very vague and general way.

BTW, Mike Leigh’s movies are great for getting that bleak mood of early 80s England, especially Meantime, but even the comedy, Life Is Sweet. And while I haven’t seen This Is England, by Shane Meadows, I’ve heard similar comments.”





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