When I was 17, I got a job in a supermarket. I often say it was my favourite or second-favourite job I’ve ever had, depending on how generous I’m feeling toward my current métier. I’m not sure how true that actually is. I know I liked it at the time, despite a bumpy start spending the first month collecting trolleys in the rain – the store opened in November – before I was promoted to checkout and then onto the plum spot behind the cigarette counter and taking charge of the bing-bong microphone. But if I am very honest, the only reason I loved it was because I knew it wasn’t for ever. I was young, I had plans, and none of them involved staying in my hometown to do anything at all. It wasn’t my ‘career’ – not that I had any idea what my career was supposed to be back then. Still! Career was just a word, a terrifying one, that meant if I chose badly I would regret it for ever.
I recently read the book Convenience Store Woman, which tells the story of a 36-year-old who’s worked in the same shop for eighteen years, which her colleagues, friends, family and indeed anyone she encounters find incredibly weird. There has definitely been, for a long time, the idea that only progression and aggressive, ceaseless achievement matter – that even if you are good at something, enjoy it, and manage to get by on the money, you should always be looking for more. They call it self-improvement or self-development but isn’t a large part of it about conforming? When I was at school, the roles of shelf-stacker or burger-flipper were seen as the ultimate failure, roles that could be done by anyone if they messed up badly enough– and this idea was encouraged by all teachers and indeed other adults around you.
It was instilled into me by both my working-class parents that if I didn’t do something, I ran the risk of amounting to nothing. To them, the only option was for me to get far away. This wasn’t snobbishness on their part; they only had to look around them. This was the problem with growing up working class in the ’80s in the north, and, I suppose still exists for anyone who’s working class anywhere, and anytime. If you want to move forward, or climb the ladder, you have to be exceptional – there is no room to be mediocre. Just being ‘okay’ at something wouldn’t be enough. I had to get the grades, I had to ‘use my brain’; I wasn’t allowed to fritter time away, dumb down or just slob about. There had to be purpose in everything I did. Although inspired by them, this burden didn’t come from my parents – it came from within. In this way, being working class can be something of a dichotomy; you’re not meant to think you’re better than anyone else, but… there’s pressure to at least try to be. It’s hard to explain. I’m sure a lot of you understand what I’m saying. If this seems alien to you, congratulations.
It’s one of the most galling things, when you realise that more privileged people than you can coast along, and even be rewarded, for being distinctly average. It’s not always about money, but privilege and entitlement often stem from it. Money, time, connections, being pale and male enough, and having good health can stand in for talent, or intellect, or drive. Success is often assured, so there’s no need to try too hard. Indeed mediocrity seems to be the default, if much of our cabinet is anything to go by. Witness former BBC reporter John Simpson kvetching in the media last week that his son’s Oxbridge education may work against him in an era where employers are slowly starting to recognise the importance of hiring people from diverse backgrounds. Not only is it nonsense, as these back-slapping systems will take generations to unravel, but it’s a problem plucked from nowhere, invented out of boredom – his son is 14, who says he’s going to get anywhere near Oxford or Cambridge? He could be a raging thicko, for all we know. But that doesn’t matter, not to his father – there’s always a way in if you know the right people, and he knows them. He’s just frightened that this tiny, infinitesimal shift of the playing field in the direction of social mobility is an earthquake. If only. That’s not to say there aren’t talented and exceptional people from very privileged backgrounds, of course there are, and they deserve every success – but they will not have to shout as loud, or push as forcefully, or pray as hard that they might be discovered. They have nothing to escape from. Doors are there to be opened for them, not banged upon. In my experience, working class parents always want you to do better than them – privileged parents, I feel, are less keen to be outdone, but are happy to be at least matched. Probably because they know it’s easily achieved.
The supermarket I worked in has changed hands several times and is now a gigantic Tesco; I still go once a year, usually Christmas Eve, because they do a nice crémant and they have a wider range of Fever Tree tonics than the local Asda. (One aspect of being working class you almost never hear about when people talk about them as some kind of benefit-grabbing homogenous mass is the little touches of aspiration that keep you going. Hyacinth Bucket was not just a TV character – you found them on every street when I was growing up.) I worked alongside people who may well still be there, but I never see any of my former colleagues; I’m not sure I would recognise them anyway. I remember the team leaders. The use of ‘team leader’ was unusual then, to be described as a team seemed hopelessly fake; I grew up in a world where there were managers, supervisors, and… everybody else. There was Pauline with very short grey hair who was cigarette-slim and chain-smoked whenever she wasn’t bustling around the supervisors’ podium. There was Lorraine, short, blowdried brown hair, who shouted at me once for leaving my till unattended. And there was another woman, again with a killer blow-dry, whose name escapes me. They all hoped for something better, they said, during unsolicited, slightly uncomfortable confessionals in the canteen, which had been decorated in the style of a political prisoner’s cell. They’d come from better supermarkets, or worse ones, lured by the idea of ‘change’ or wanting more hours, or fewer. They found themselves in their thirties and forties, wearing a ridiculous uniform – bright red sweatshirt with yellow arms, over a similarly coloured polo shirt, and even a baseball cap (which was quickly ditched) – working for yet another team of managers who they automatically despised (often with good reason). I sympathised, joined in with the bitching, wondered if maybe I could just stay there for ever, not go to university at all. As much as I wanted to get away, the thought of it frightened me. I could imagine it at all, couldn’t visualise being somewhere else. Another supermarket, another town, another life. I did leave, though – I got a job at the McDonald’s in town which offered me more hours and had a slightly less ridiculous uniform, so I was gone by June. After I handed in my notice – the drama of it! As if the store manager even cared! – most of my immediate colleagues were envious, I was ‘getting out’, even if it was just to dress hamburgers half a mile up the road. Pauline, however, took a long drag of her Superkings as we sat in the canteen and told me I was making a mistake.
‘Change for change’s sake? You always regret it.’ A blue plume surrounded her. ‘I never leave a job unless it’s absolutely fucking unbearable.’ Which this job was, if her tired eyes were anything to go by.
She was right, as it happened. I did regret it.
It was fascinating and heartening to see supermarket workers briefly enjoy a period where they were elevated to emergency service status during the early days of lockdown. It felt like people were finally realising what hard work it is. Everything involving a customer is hard work, frankly, but with supermarkets, the concept is so old that people don’t seem to appreciate it. Supermarkets are like water coming out the tap, or lights coming on when you flick a switch – we got complacent. It was only when shelves started to empty, attracting gleeful photographers uploading their snaps from the frontline, that people seemed to realise there was more to it than shelf-stacking or scanning barcodes. When I shopped during lockdown, I did notice customers being a little nicer to staff – this seems to have been temporary if the customer meltdown I witnessed in Hammersmith Tesco is any indicator – and fast food lovers treated the return of McDonald’s as a sign civilisation was finally gaining a foothold over the virus. You don’t know how much you miss them until they’re gone, do you?
Equally fascinating, but much less heartening has been the government’s assertion that people who work in the arts might have to give up their frivolous, creative careers and retrain as something else. There’s very much an air of resentment around working in the creative industries – probably because it’s hard to get into and thrive, and also because it’s seen by those who don’t do it as a ‘fun’ job, even though plenty of people in all sorts of industries who love their job. People who like their ‘regular’ jobs must wonder why what they do for living is presented as a fate worse than death, or thereabouts.
I wouldn’t want to go back to the cigarette kiosk now, not even if I could continue to pilfer the ‘broken’ packets of Mini Eggs that I used to shovel into my mouth under the counter during quiet spells. (Why did I do this? I didn’t even like Mini Eggs.) I may even still enjoy it, sharpening my Margo Leadbetter impression on the tannoy and chatting to Bradford’s amiable, yet out of breath, smokers. But being back on minimum wage wouldn’t be any fun, the lack of respect from less kind customers would be tough, and that’s the reality of a supermarket job, or any customer-facing role. You’re paid low wages yet have to meet high expectations, your value is pegged to your pay packet. This is the mindset that needs to change – that a zero-hours’ contract or low earnings mean that what you’re doing doesn’t matter, that your self-respect somehow belongs to someone else. If coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that workers in low-wage jobs deserve better: better pay, better treatment, better conditions to work in. Maybe then some other teenager working on the cigarette kiosk won’t feel that unless they move onto something else, they’ve failed.
Working in a shop or flipping a burger is not the end of the world – it’s a job that may, in fact, just end up saving it one day. Time to pay up, society.
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Image of carrier bag used in header: @TaliaRandall, from Twitter. And, yes, it was Food Giant I worked in.