MOST adults living in Britain today were once slackers - or at least they belong to a generation that was once berated for being too lazy, too entitled, too lacking in work ethic.
Most of them seem to have forgotten that, judging by the clamour of voices complaining that today's young people "lack grit" (according to Employment Minister Nick Hurd), aren't "tough" enough (to quote Jamie Oliver) or - as Noel Gallagher said last year - have lost the work ethic that prevailed under Margaret Thatcher.
In these post-crash times, people worry more about work ethic when it seems possible that all of us working harder might save our economy. Last week, Bank of England governor Mark Carney said there was "certainly scope for the economy to grow" through an "increase in output per hour worked".
Despite having worked all my life, I am a classic slacker: part of the Generation X who left school in the late 1980s and had American movies made about us such as 1991 comedy Slackers. But the Xers weren't the only ones with a reputation for being workshy. My parents belonged to the generation famous for tuning in and dropping out, which pretty much amounts to slacking. Tom Wolfe described the young adults of the 1970s as the "me generation". They, of course, also get called the baby boomers, and people talk a lot about their marvellous work ethic and loyalty, which more often than not was rewarded by material gain as well as reciprocal loyalty from employers.
Lucky them. Work is never going to mean quite the same for today's young, the so-called Generations Y and Z. How can it when, as Glasgow University Professor Andy Furlong predicted last week, a landscape of "precarious work", of part-time and zero-contracts hours, is likely to be the shape of the future?
But still we hear that repeated cry, echoed down several generations, about the "trouble" with the young, mostly repeated now by baby boomers with nice pensions but also, strangely, by Generation Xers who have done good such as Noel Gallagher and Jamie Oliver. In the 1994 slacker-movie Reality Bites, the central character says: "The trouble with your generation is you've got no work ethic." Even back in the 1960s there was cynicism about the worship of ladder-climbing hard graft. "There's a great future in plastics," advises a loathsome character in 1967 movie The Graduate.
Indeed, when people go on about the young of today lacking a work ethic, they forget that the meaning of work has entirely changed. We are a long way from living in the 19th century when a so-called Protestant work ethic delivered everyone a sense of virtue from the mere activity of toiling. People only really like to talk about the work ethic when they are employers or business leaders who consider that their workforce could pull their finger out, or when they're explaining why they employ immigrants. But immigrants don't work harder because they have a better work ethic, they do so in order to achieve a better life, or perhaps send money back home.
Even those on their high horses who say they have a strong work ethic probably don't. They work for other reasons: because they love their work; because they have a mortgage to pay. That's not work ethic. In the absence of the philosophy that work is a civic or religious virtue, why should we expect the young to work long hours on low pay, with no promise of advancement or security, in a company that exists above all to make profits for its shareholders? Why would we expect them to participate in institutions that will show them no respect?
Work has become more precarious. But it has also gradually become one of two things; either a means to earn money, or a path to individual self-realisation, fulfilment and meaning. A recent survey of teenagers found the thing they wanted most in their future was "a job they love". This may seem like an indulgence. Life is tough, one might say, and these kids should knuckle down. But isn't it what we all want?
Of course, some of those decrying the loss of the work ethic would like to see all of us, whatever our age, return to times when to work was a unanimously approved virtue. Some believe, too, that it was the work ethic that tempered capitalism, and its loss - the pursuit of money and the material in the absence of valuing work - is what got us into trouble. But what this misses is that we lose something when we value work above all things. When I started out I, like the Gen Z teenagers, wanted a job I loved. I wanted a job to which I would give my all. But there was a lightbulb moment when I realised that if I gave my all to my job then there would be nothing left for anything else.
Generation Y and Z know that. That's why they want to have a life and not lose it to long hours in the office. And wouldn't most of us sympathise? Wouldn't those of us who have worked long hours, including the baby boomers, question whether all that slog was really worth it?
The truth is that the new young learned this lesson from us.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.