The Working Class Work Ethic
We built things with our hands, then started writing Twitter threads about building things with our hands
As I write this, there’s a car alarm going off in the car park next to me. It blares for 20 seconds, then stops for 5 minutes. Then it blares for 20 seconds, then stops for 5 minutes. Then it blares for 20 seconds, then stops for 5 minutes. I’m sat in Barnsley, which is in Yorkshire, which is in the UK. In British parlance, it’s what you’d call a working class town. When we used to mine for coal this town was different. But when the coal mining stopped, all we’re left with is the word ‘former’ in front of every description of Barnsley. ‘Former mining town’.
I was born eight miles away from the car alarm in a place called Wakefield. It’s identical in almost every way to Barnsley apart from its location. It’s also a working class town, made up of people who work. My parents were these sorts of people. My mum got her first job in her early teens, as did my dad. They’ve both worked every day since, aside from annual holidays, and they’re both now in their sixties. Work defines not only their life but their identity. They’re proud to have bought everything themselves and not been given handouts. They’ve worked shit jobs, good jobs, OK jobs. They’ve lost jobs, gained jobs, and lost more jobs. In the simplest nutshell, this is what the peculiar British label of ‘working-class’ is.
And I say peculiar because it isn’t something I see reflected on our globalised web. The idea of ‘work’, hard work, back-breaking work, long hours, apprenticeships, and mentorships are phrases frequently used but not meant in the way my parents mean it. People of my mum and dad’s generation worked 5 years under someone who swore at them every day telling them that they’re shit before they were trusted to do a job all by themselves. And the job they had bestowed on them was to make cups of tea.
I say all this whilst typing on my keyboard, sweating from the effort because I chose to wear jeans on a hot day in my office.
Hard work. It’s a funny old word, nowadays. The phrase ‘hard work’ has been stolen by the self improvement cabal to mean typing at a keyboard all day or thinking. ‘Long hours’ are frowned upon. You’ve read the 4-hour work week and now you want to outsource everything and do nothing. Hard work isn’t something to be glamourised or even pursued. It doesn’t ‘have leverage’, working hard. Hard work is stupid. Hard work is lazy.
I say all this as I sit at a picnic table on the rooftop of my cushy office job whilst two Americans next to me discuss fake bacon and surfing.
I think about this a lot, being lucky enough to have an office job where the weather doesn’t affect my ability to do my job and all I need to work with is my hands. I’m so far removed from my parents’ idea of working class that it’s an embarrassment for me to discuss it on any serious level. It’s almost cultural appropriation at this point, my regional accent the only thing left that hints at my true upbringing. My calloused hands are from lifting weights at the gym. I don’t moisturise them on purpose so it makes my hands seem rougher and weathered, betraying the fact I tap on a keyboard all day long.
In a world where everybody is trying to build an audience online, make cool things, write newsletters and launch YouTube channels, I often think that these privileged online creators could do with a little more working class work ethic inside them. Whilst its fashionable to write tweets like ‘think in years, not months’ and to ‘foster a long-term mentality’, the web isn’t designed that way. Everything facing us forces us into short-termism. Engagement is fleeting, metrics go up and down. Things disappear off the timeline and never return. There’s too much content to ever consume in one lifetime.
One week we’d like to become a video game streamer, the next week we’re downbeat because we only managed to get one of my friends to watch it. The week after that we’re starting a newsletter, the week after that downbeat again because the audience is two points above zero. Our online life tends to follow this zig and zag, periods of extreme desire to be TikTok famous followed by periods of extreme disdain for That Online Life. In many ways, the internet has ruined more than just our attention spans.
Bodies of work—and I believe we should all be working on one—don’t happen without a working class work ethic. They don’t happen in weeks or months, sometimes not even a year. They take literal years of toil and back-breaking work. Heartache followed by joy followed by more heartache. Years of questioning whether any of this has been worth it, I mean, really worth it. What makes it ‘worth it’, anyway? Money? Fame? Seeing little graphs trend upwards or numbers on a screen increase over time?
I don’t know what makes something really worth it. But I do know that I try to bring this attitude to my work. I like to imagine what The Wednesday Audio will be like in 10 years time. I just tipped over year one, and it’s just beginning. Time brings respectto our work and a purpose that wasn’t obvious when we first started. If you make something weird once, you just made something weird. If you make something weird every week for 10 years…you made something intentionally weird. There’s a difference in that.
Barnsley isn’t just a former mining town any longer, it’s actually lovely to live here. We’re coming out of the other side of ‘former’ now. We have signs as you enter the town that says ‘Barnsley, a place of possibilities’. Which is nice because it’s true. It’s shaking its old former labels and becoming a place for innovation and cool new stuff. The building I sit in—picnic tables on the rooftop and all—is something my parents would have never imagined 30 years ago. The world has moved on, but our work ethic doesn’t need to. We can still learn something from the parents on that one.
Maybe not for The Wednesday Audio. But for the things you’re making, probably.
I loved reading this. It struck a chord in the sense that my grandfather was forced to leave school and sent to work down a mine at the age of 14 in order to provide for the family. He hated it. He found escape in books and attended night classes in economics and philosophy. At 17 he led a strike at the pit, later becoming a Labour councillor, teacher and Headmaster. His toil at the literal coalface, turning over spade after spade of coal and at the local library, turning those many thousands of pages are the reasons I sit here now. A teacher myself. We often forget that we are composites and creations of our ancestors, not merely in blood and bone, but because of the work they put in. Thanks for making me think of all this again.
With all the ways I've thought of work, I would've never made the connections you made here - especially as hard work relates to writing. And I so enjoy reading you - it is effortless to read your big ideas, and making something effortless to read takes a lot of effort. (or, it takes a lot of effort for me ha!)