My first job was at 13, lugging bags of newspapers up and down streets before dawn. Turning 16 opened the magic door to the shop jobs that my earlier-than-July-born classmates had started to simultaneously brag and sigh about. I don’t remember applying, though I must have done, but I found myself spending Saturdays and Thursday evenings in the city centre branch of Saxone, wearing a polyester uniform which was too short for me, trying to meet punishing targets for the sale of shoecare products and earning a princely £1.66 per hour.
The payslips appeared in my docket (along with memos exhorting me to push harder on the leather protector), but I don’t remember being taught to read them. Along with the blue and red card with the magical National Insurance number permitting a Real Job, they were a mystical part of a coming-of-age process which seemed to happen without any input required from me at all.
From shoe shop to pub, from call centre to factory, from summer jobs to temping to qualification and beyond, the NI card and the mysterious payslips have been something which lurked behind the money which appeared in my bank account: a fact of life apparently as essential, shadowy and inscrutable as the workings of my inner organs. I don’t understand what I pay, but I pay what I understand I am required to, happily, in general, as a way of contributing to a system I value.
I never felt any particular merit while I was a tax payer, but I sure as hell felt the loss of it when I wasn’t. From being a background obligation; a consequence of earning; it suddenly seems to have acquired the status of a fundamental moral good; a shorthand for probity, decency and the right to shout the loudest.
I’ll teach my children to read their payslips when the time comes (should they manage to find employment), but the current prevailing trend seems to suggest I should also impress on them a fundamental duty to earn to their full potential in order to maximise their contribution to the Exchequer at all times (until, mysteriously, they earn enough to have other options). That is the only logical conclusion which can be drawn from much of what I read and hear. Not working, for whatever reason, and whether or not any financial assistance is drawn from the state, is (to my possibly hyper sensitive eyes) becoming socially unacceptable; a failure to contribute financially seen as equating to being inferior which starts to blur into a vision of an underclass less deserving of rights.
If ensuring one pays to the full one’s dues in tax and NI is an essential moral good, though, how is it that we don’t have a finance industry stuffed full of wonks advising the wealthy and the corporate how to exploit loopholes and follow the spirit rather than the letter of legislation to maximise their contributions? At what point does the failure to contribute the maximum possible morph from the sign of a slacker and a scrounger to the hall mark of success? Do we muddily conclude that someone wealthy enough to afford professional advice on minimising payments to HMRC is probably contributing sufficiently already not to need to pay the full whack? Our approach and our attitudes to it all, at both the top and the bottom ends of society, are a nonsense.
When i wasn’t working, with some weird kind of survivor syndrome, I would load up my diary with hours of voluntary engagements. “Look!” I’d cry, gesturing at meetings and admin and general grunt work, which, though worthy and rewarding, generated much of the stress and none of the pay of my previous Real Job. “I contribute too!” I would doubtless have donemuch of it anyway, but the compulsion to demonstrate my value to society was different and damaging, not just to me, but in that it contributes to this sense that one must be seen to be paying one’s dues in order to be worthy of consideration and standing.
I’ve joked in passing about the right to vote being linked in future to tax paid. Beneath the jokes lurks a quiet, dark fear, though: that this is where current rhetoric is taking us. I have paid lots, and I will go on to pay more in the future. Even still, I feel excluded, separate, undeserving in the relentless focus on the “taxpayer”. What does it mean for those who will never be able to collect the stickers – or show their faces – sufficiently to be accepted as “valuable”? If we insist that the only worth a person has is in his or her paid work, we reduce human dignity to an economic value which ultimately impoverishes us all.