The populist wave sweeping Western democracies has put the plight of the working class at the heart of political discussion. But while the focus on declining, former manufacturing towns is welcome, the conversation is narrow – characteristic of an elite far removed from the lives of those they are trying to understand.
The conversation usually starts and stops with one simple question: are the people who live there earning enough money? If they are employed and earning enough to be at least firmly in the working class, then ‘problem solved’.
James Bloodworth’s new audio documentary for UnHerd asks a much deeper question: shouldn’t we be as concerned with people’s psychological wellbeing as their material wellbeing? The evidence suggests we should.
The two are, of course, linked. Data from happiness surveys has long confirmed what simple experience tells us: people and nations with more money are happier. But focusing on aggregate data alone masks a much more complicated picture.
James’ documentary argues that the nature of the work that someone performs has a significant effect on their personal happiness. Treat a person like an animal or a robot, as James contends the Amazon warehouse in Rugeley does, and those people will feel a greater sense of discontent – even if they are steadily employed.
Happiness survey data bears this out – an individual’s wellbeing, their sense of worth and personal happiness, is based on much more than their income. Work itself matters: men in particular are severely and negatively affected by unemployment, which, unlike other major life events such as divorce, causes both short-term and long-term declines in male life satisfaction – even if they later re-enter work. The wide scale community-level unemployment that often follows deindustrialisation is poison to the self-esteem of men who lose those jobs.
But crucially, the type of work a person does is also key to their happiness. Dutch researchers recently found that people engaged in low-skilled blue-collar work are significantly less satisfied with their jobs than those engaged in high-skilled blue-collar work.
Why we can't ignore the working-class identity crisis
Moving from skilled employment to packing goods at an Amazon warehouse, as James hypothesises, is exactly the sort of shift that can reduce happiness, even if incomes are unchanged – which they rarely are.
Add to that high job insecurity and stress – which evidence also shows negatively impacts happiness – and it’s not hard to see why so many people working in precarious, poor quality jobs are feeling jaded. The experiences James describes, the fear of being sacked and the “dehumanising” push for productivity, are the sort of factors that drive this dissatisfaction.
At the extreme, this can create such devastating levels of despair that people choose to end their lives. Anne Case and Angus Deaton raised a firestorm with the publication of their 2015 report showing that “deaths from despair” – such as suicide and drug overdose – have dramatically risen among middle-aged White American men without a college degree.
The even more deadly hurricane surging across America
In America, these are the men who have been most adversely affected by the dramatic decline in manufacturing employment. They, and to a lesser degree the women in their lives, are also the people who made Donald Trump President in 2016.
This link between chronic opioid use and support for Donald Trump has now been empirically proven. And you can see this by overlaying two maps: this map showng unintentional opioid-related deaths by county between 2011 and 2015, and this one showing how much a county moved to or away from the Republican presidential nominee between 2012 and 2016.
This relationship between blue-collar unhappiness and political turmoil is by no means exclusive to the United States. Happiness surveys show a distinct, geographic difference between the former East and West Germany, which cannot be fully explained by the underlying sociodemographic characteristics. Political analysis of the most recent German election also finds a distinct difference between those two regions in support for the right-wing-populist party AfD. Political observers have also long noticed the relationship between industrial decline and support for France’s Front National.
And back in Rugeley we can see it too. Rugeley is part of the constituency of Cannock Chase, which had long been a safe Labour seat, giving the workers’ party well over 50% of the vote. But in 2010 it turned Tory blue, despite being number 198 on the party’s target list. In fact David Cameron’s 2010 election win was fueled in large part by dramatic increases in the Conservative vote among disaffected blue-collar workers in seats like Cannock Chase. And the seat has remained Conservative ever since, with the Tory nominee gaining vote share in each succeeding election. It was also one of the strongest Leave constituencies in the nation, with nearly 69% voting for Brexit.
America’s Declaration of Independence claims that government is instituted to secure certain “unalienable rights” such as “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Denying a large number of people that pursuit, as modern governments of left and right too often do by forgetting working-class communities, is a recipe for social disaster and political upheaval.
As the Declaration states, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” The populist uprisings that remain surprising to much of the Western political, intellectual, and media elites are nothing more than “the People” exercising that right. Paying more attention to the pursuit of happiness and less to the economic wealth of nations may be the best way of preventing this upheaval.