On a recent sojourn to London (my fourth ever) I found myself very uncomfortable in the alien surroundings of the Tube. Was it the bustle, with my fresh face and rural upbringing once again to blame? No. Was it the desire in every stranger to stare intently but not to make eye contact? No. Was I wearing a jumper too many in the clammy carriage? Well yes, actually, but guess again. Maybe it was my resignation to an inexplicable failure to fathom the Oyster Card system, and the image of Boris Johnson chasing me for my £50 fraud charge. Troubling as that image is, what really bothered me as I adjusted to the London transport system was the billboard in front of me advertising job vacancies at the Olympic Games.
I suppose that Londoners will be familiar enough with these adverts to correct me on the wording, but the general drive of the ubiquitous Games Maker adverts seems to me to be this: ‘Spend hours doing such and such a low skilled but necessary job. Spend hours/days feeling very tired, and slowly feel the sense of achievement and usefulness to sink in. Then forget about it, except when telling stories to your grandchildren.’ Now this alone would perhaps be defensible, if it weren’t for the small print at the bottom that directs you to a website – www.london2012.com/get-involved/volunteering. Volunteering. All voluntary positions at the Games are eight hour shifts on at least ten days. That’s eighty hours of work in a job as engaging as sitting at an information desk, inspecting tickets or directing traffic with the aid of a loudspeaker. All this… for no money?
Hold on, I hear you say. There must be some freebies. Free transport? Free accommodation? Free tickets to events, voluntary positions inside arenas, maybe even a chance to meet a competitor or two? Well I’ll admit that the last one was a little hopeful, but each of these is explicitly blown out of the water by the hilariously patronising ‘Take the Challenge’ test on the website (my personal favourite question has to be ‘Are you passionate about making London 2012 a truly memorable Games?’)
So, just to recapitulate, the proposition is this: hours and hours of mind numbing boredom, paid for exclusively by individual volunteers, and the most to be offered in return is a story to tell the grandchildren about. Is that really the best they can do?
If any greater confirmation were needed that this is one of the first tentative trials of the Big Society, the ‘Challenge’ blows that out of the water too:
Q: Are you willing to find your own accommodation and travel to whichever venue your role is based at?
Response: That’s a shame…Perhaps you could check out volunteering opportunities that are closer to where you live.
Now, what really irked me about these adverts wasn’t that they advertised as voluntary work. Voluntary work can be a rewarding, stimulating, excellent experience and just about everything that paid work can be. What I found so distasteful was the cynical way in which the adverts played on class symbols that only exist in their current form as a result of both poor social mobility and the rigid strength and self-reinforcing nature of social conditioning. The use of ‘Something to tell the grandchildren about’ is expressly designed to appeal to those with jobs that lack societal significance – here is an opportunity for a shelf stacker to play a part in the ‘greatest show on earth’. The designers of the advert clearly appreciate the obvious truth that the more educated a person is, the less inclined they will be to do a boring job with no perks for free. So they cynically target those with the least education – broadly, those with the lowest paid jobs.
I don’t deny that volunteers are needed to make the Olympic Games happen at all, or that such positions need to be advertised. But I think it is the responsibility of a government to ask of its citizens in plain terms, without seeking to manipulate and exploit groups that are receptive to a certain spin. With such an approach I accept that fewer volunteers would probably be recruited, but maybe this is a good indication that volunteers deserve some material rewards for their efforts – at the very least free accommodation and travel costs.
If this episode does turn out to be representative of the government’s approach to encouraging voluntary work, it would at least fit into a coherent narrative. Cuts to public services will surely have a trickle-down effect that will result in those least valued by society being made unemployed. Once that has come to pass, I wonder how many people will be lured back into their former positions on a voluntary basis on the grounds that they will be able to tell their grandchildren of their part in the greatest sham on earth.