Among the discoveries James Bloodworth made, while working undercover in low-wage jobs in Britain for six months, was that working in an Amazon warehouse entailed walking ten miles a day. Eight hours into a ten-hour shift, and “oppressively tired,” it became difficult for him to find things to daydream about. It was also tricky to know what his rights were, because he never received a copy of his zero-hours contract, but he knew that the two fifteen-minute paid breaks were mostly spent walking the length of the warehouse—about ten soccer fields long—and through security scanners designed to detect petty theft. “I wouldn’t do that work,” a local man told him, unapologetically. “I’d fall out with them over how they treat people.”
In the middle of the longest stagnation of earnings in Britain since the 1860s, with a majority of the poor living in working households, Bloodworth’s book Hired (Atlantic Books, $19.95, 288 pp.) has been hailed by commentators across the political divide. It has put flesh and bones on labor-market statistics, demanding that we look at the reality of the jobs underpinning high employment rates. It has also posed some awkward questions to consumers—What sort of working practices ensure that we receive our online order the next day?—and exposed some ugly attitudes. “A wretched and miserable job does not appall the middle classes so much as the behavior exhibited by a person who does such a job,” writes Bloodworth, who found himself falling into bed with junk food, and craving cigarettes and alcohol.
His is not, he acknowledges, an original or pioneering way of reporting on working-class life. Hired joins a well-established tradition of left-wing journalists exploring the world of low-paid work, most famously The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s account of life in industrial Lancashire in the 1930s. Since the turn of the century, other examples include Hard Work by the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and, in the United States, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.
Reading these books, I was struck by how little some things have changed. What’s new in the reaction to Bloodworth’s contribution is the suggestion that maybe it wasn’t his story to tell in the first place. “I will, of course, be denounced by some for writing this book at all,” he writes, in his introduction. Burning alongside conversations about economic inequality is a debate about access, platforms, and social mobility. More than half of Britain’s top journalists went to elite, private high schools (confusingly called public schools), and the methods writers adopt in attempts to get under the skin of poverty are increasingly subject to scrutiny. “If The Road to Wigan Pier had been written by a Wigan miner, and not an Etonian rebel, this is what might have been achieved,” reads a review printed on the back of another recent book—Poverty Safari (Pan Macmillan, $12.46, 240 pp.), Darren McGarvey’s account of growing up in Glasgow.
Bloodworth’s roots lie a long way from Eton. He left school with few qualifications and did the sort of work he documents in Hired well into his twenties. But he’s happy to acknowledge that, for the purposes of the book, he was a tourist: if things got too bad he could “beat a hasty retreat to a more comfortable existence.” His preemptive defense includes a questioning of where the demand for authenticity can lead (“quietism if treated as an absolute”). In the end, he argues, the sort of change that would free up working-class people to pick up the pen will require an alliance with the middle classes—the people likely to read his book.
It’s striking that similar arguments do not appear in Hired’s antecedents. The authors of those books were quick to disavow claims to authenticity (“It was impossible for me to stimulate fear of any sense of insecurity,” admits Toynbee), but they didn’t anticipate a suspicious or even wrathful response from readers. In fact, the way in which they frame their endeavors tells us something important about the relationship between those who document poverty and those who live it. In 2002, Ehrenreich anticipated that a day was coming when low-paid workers would demand more, a day of anger and strikes. Sixteen years later, the percentage of American workers classified as working poor is even higher, and rage abounds. In the United Kingdom, the majority of people in poverty are in working families. If we did hand them the pen, what might they write? And would we like what they had to say?