I remember an old farmer commenting about lads ‘helping out.’ “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy, three boys is no boy at all.”

I know of a couple of farms round here that used to get a lot of lads ‘helping out.’ With village farms where the village was a community, not a dormitory suburb, it was common. I remember talking to one chap, he commented that of all the lads who’d passed through the farm, all were in work but not one was in farming. As far as he could tell, all of them would be earning more than him. Most were working for plant hire companies, or on the highways or in similar trades.

What is noticeable is just how switched on and flexible you need staff to be, and if nothing else the lad working a bit will pick up self-reliance, learn that there’s no such thing as demarcation, and nobody is too important to push or pull when pushing or pulling is called for.

I can remember a farmer locally who was also a local councillor. He hit the roof when one boy in a local school told the careers master that he wanted to go into working on farms. The teacher told him, “Then that’s a total waste of an education.”

The farmer went into the school and formally complained. After all could the teacher work out the Metabolisable Energy of a dairy cow diet, spot and treat Ketosis, deliver a calf and stomach tube it with Colostrum, work out a breeding programme to take advantage of modern genetics, and trim a cow’s feet?

But there’s another side to this issue. In simple terms, nowadays there isn’t a lot of room on a farm for the person who isn’t on top of their game. The days when you could have a lad who was willing but not too bright spend a day mucking out bullock hulls with a fork and a barrow have long gone. Now when the job’s done, because of fewer staff, less money and larger farms, the lad with a barrow might be a contractor with a skid steer loader combined with a serious tractor and a big muck spreader. The contractor could be paying the leasing on £100,000 worth of kit. He’s a businessman and his phone hopefully never stops ringing as people are booking him.

But we still have the not too bright lads. Intelligence is the classic bell curve. The chart shows it nicely.

An IQ of 85 is marked because in 1959, the American Association on Mental Deficiency set 85 as the I.Q. below which a person was considered to be retarded. There is discussion about where the line should be drawn but there is a general feeling that there is somewhere on that curve below which the person just cannot cope with society.

Given the fact that now over 50% of each year group in the UK go to university, and some bright people don’t go to university, it’s obvious that universities are drawing from people who are ‘below average.’

At the same time the job opportunities for those lower down the bell curve are diminishing. I saw some discussion of men who were executed in the USA. (I chose this because it’s a useful data source, other countries don’t necessarily talk to these people. At least the US court system has to.)

Billy Dwayne White, executed in Texas in 1992, had an I.Q. of 66. After being hired as a kitchen dishwasher he was fired when he could not learn to operate the dishwasher. Family members reported that “if one told Billy exactly what to do and took him to the place where it was to be done [he] could do some work. If he were left on his own and not specifically guided, he could not do it.”

Johnny Paul Penry, on death row in Texas, with an I.Q. measured variously between 50 and the low sixties, at one point worked greasing the bearings of cart wheels. “I was good at this,” he told an interviewer proudly.

Another capital defendant “hid his mental retardation for most of his life by working at a very repetitive job as a switcher on the railroad. He lied about finishing high school. He was actually in special education classes and did not finish the sixth grade. He was drafted into the army and discharged because of his mental retardation. He lied about his service record. He often made things up so that people would not suspect mental retardation.”

· “Joe,” a mentally retarded man, admired tough-talking local drug dealers and sought to befriend them. One day his drug dealer “friends” gave Joe a gun and instructed him to go into a store and take money from the clerk. They told him, however, “Don’t shoot the guy unless you have to.” Joe hid for a while, then entered the store, but he forgot his instructions. “He panicked and couldn’t remember the plan. He shot the guy and forgot to rob the store.”

When I was a lad I can remember the bin lorry coming. It had a plank on the back and the crew stood on that. I suppose this was fair enough when it’s just working its way down the street, but they used to stand on it as it drove three or four miles out down the main road to start picking farms up. I remember my Dad chatting to the foreman who he’d know from farm work. The foreman and the driver were both bright enough. The others in the crew, perhaps six or seven of them, were distinctly below average.

But they had a job, they were paid a wage, they were independent, and they had homes and families. They had their self-respect and they had the sheer exhilarating joy of riding on the back of the bin lorry at a hair raising thirty miles an hour on the main road.

But what do they do now for a living? I know one chap, I remember him saying, ‘I’ll never be anything but semi-skilled.’ He’s never held down a paid job, but has worked in charity shops etc. He never will hold down a job. He’s in his forties, living with his parents and when they die, the council are most unlikely to house him in their house so he could even finish up homeless. He doesn’t need to be in an institution. He might even have made it to being foreman on one of the old bin lorries. He could certainly aspire to that job.

He’ll never have a family, no woman is going to marry him, they can do better. Indeed I suspect his only family will be his sister and her children. His sister, a one parent family, managed to get a flat. Ironically she too has never really worked (a little casual bar work or temporary shop staff) but she’s made a cracking job of rearing her children, the oldest of whom has gone to university and they will all hopefully do well. But with increasing automation and the arrival of the robot, what’s going to happen? Is perpetually unemployment going to be pushed further up the bell curve? What is going to happen to these people? Because the lad who’s a bit slow but can sweep up with a brush can be replaced by a robo-vacuum cleaner.

On the other hand the accountant, the middle manager and the journalist can be replaced by algorithms.

Now I’ve spent enough time doing dirty jobs in the rain. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the dignity of labour at this point. It’s surprising how often those who do have an indoor job with no heavy lifting.

But people need a reason to get out of bed in a morning. If you’re going to decide that fifty percent (to pluck a figure out of the air) of your population exist purely as consumers, then frankly, lockdown has given us an unwanted insight into that world. If you’re offering people a life which consists of benefits, a flat, and a Netflix subscription, wouldn’t it just be kinder to suggest they open their veins in the bath?



There again, what do I know? Check with somebody who knows how the system works.

More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

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22 thoughts on “Lads

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt March 20, 2021 at 5:43 am Reply

    There are many manual jobs that need doing, and never get done, because there is no money and no personnel to do them. Some people do very well at these repetitive jobs – with a little help.

    The problem is the lack of dignity afforded to those who do the jobs – and that they support a caretaking industry where people are paid to make sure they don’t get into trouble, instead of to support them learning a job.

    The solutions are bigger than telling the man whose parents died that he can’t live in the only home he’s ever known any more. But there’s always money for battleships.

    • jwebster2 March 20, 2021 at 5:49 am Reply

      Ironically the standard of living that his parents manages was because we build battleships. (Or at least submarines and warships)
      When Bush and Thatcher declared the ‘peace dividend’, this town paid it. Our major employer dropped from employing over 16,000 to about 3,000 and a lot of people never worked again.
      But it ties in with your dignity afforded to those who do work with their hands. The greens and some on the left have said our shipyard should stop making warships and start making wind turbines.
      We have the worlds finest welders, they work on nuclear reactors and pressure hulls! They’re being told that they ought to get a job in a screwdriver assembly plant putting together components shipped in from around the world 😦

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt March 20, 2021 at 10:47 am

        It never works out even – ask the skilled weavers displaced by the automated looms. Or the steel workers in the mills who never again gained the same salary when the steel started coming from overseas. It is tough, and ‘retraining’ older seldom has the easy transition.

        Unless you are training from the beginning to be replaced – knowing it will come. My kids are techies – and were brought up to expect change. Not everyone can be flexible, and some changes are so drastic they leave scars.

        Ironically, those with capital get richer, and switch more and more over to machines.

        We top it off by paying very low salaries to those who do the hard work of caring for the sick, children, and the elderly. Not the nurses and doctors, but definitely the aides doing a lot of the work.

  2. rootsandroutes2012 March 20, 2021 at 6:25 am Reply

    Thank you Jim.

  3. Eddy Winko March 20, 2021 at 6:44 am Reply

    There is a slightly different approach here in Poland, although there are many different reasons behind it. Not having a welfare state is one of the big ones, so reliance on family and casual work is much more common, but then families here tend to live in extended units.
    You also get many local council run projects that provide work for the unemployed, sweeping the streets, keeping the parks well mowed and tidy (I often spot the hi-vis army set to task around town) I’m not sure how much they are paid but I’m sure there must be some benefit to them. Also, if you are registered as unemployed you must attend job interviews which are arranged by the state in order for your social security payments to stay up to date. If you don’t find a job after 6 months (or some period of time) then you will be put on a training course to learn a skill that is relevant to the local market.
    I’m not so much praising the system, but it does mean that labour is often available and at a low cost. Ordering some stone recently to make an old track passable the truck arrived with with a few lads as passengers, available to me for a very low cost if I wanted someone to help me spread it on the road. Both of them appeared sober, so they got the job, and for £20 the stone was laid in about 3 hours.

    • jwebster2 March 20, 2021 at 7:12 am Reply

      There used to be a lot of ‘picking the phone up’ and getting a couple of lads to help with stuff. The problem is that we’re torn between the tax system and benefits system which can make criminals of both parties.

    • jwebster2 March 20, 2021 at 7:14 am Reply

      Another problem I saw was the training schemes. A lot of them had people put on courses for six months but the course actually took a year to complete, so after six months the funding stopped and the lad ended up back at the centre and they put him on another six months of a different course. Because the centres were measured and paid on the number of courses undertaken not finished 😦

    • rootsandroutes2012 March 20, 2021 at 9:16 am Reply

      That Polish system could have saved me a five figure sum this last year Eddy. I still wouldn’t want to be in Poland given the way it has made it into our British news headlines this morning…

      • Eddy Winko March 20, 2021 at 11:31 am

        The trick in finding labour here is checking for the smell of alcohol 🙂 Sorry, that’s probably unfair, but there are a few locals who you can rely on if you need hands on shovels and at roughly £3 an hour (just over the minimum wage) you can achieve a lot in a short time for relatively little money.
        The covid explosion is a bit of a worry, although the press (state controlled) mange to keep a lid on the true scale of the problem. The recent excess deaths figures bring this to light when you compare then against the figures the gov put out.
        Although I do believe that they are doing better than most in the EU at getting needles in arms, so there is some hope.

      • rootsandroutes2012 March 20, 2021 at 11:55 am

        That test wouldn’t work for me, Eddy. I’ve got virtually no sense of smell (and didn’t have, long before it became a covid marker). I hope you’ll carry on doing better than most in the EU. That’s a pretty low bar, and I really wish you much better things – like escaping the EU altogether.

  4. Doug March 20, 2021 at 8:06 am Reply

    This brings back memories of YTS courses in the 1980s: build a wall, demolish a wall, dig a ditch, fill in a ditch… nothing of any practical use, and more like a chain gang than a training scheme.

    • jwebster2 March 20, 2021 at 8:10 am Reply

      Yes a lot of those schemes seem to have been set up to earn money for the organisers, not for the young people on them 😦
      Ironically, I could have taken those lads onto a score of farms where they could have learned proper walling and ditching and at the end of the week could have looked back at jobs well done.
      But of course no farm could cope with the paperwork needed to actually be the organisation that got the money and ran the scheme

  5. Stevie Turner March 20, 2021 at 12:01 pm Reply

    Many people who are not very bright claim benefits because it’s easier than doing a dead-end job. They can sit at home all day and watch Netflix instead of filling shelves or emptying bins.

    • jwebster2 March 20, 2021 at 3:48 pm Reply

      The problem is that to navigate the benefits system you have to be pretty switched on. Half the work of a foodbank is trying to signpost those who cannot cope with it to people who can hand hold them through the process 😦

  6. Doug Jacquier March 20, 2021 at 6:47 pm Reply

    I think I may have made a similar comment on one of your earlier posts but I have long maintained that, in a developed industrial technology-based society (and I include China because they are now grappling with the same issue), there will never be enough paid jobs for unskilled labour and it can only worsen. Just like the aged care crisis, we have always known this was coming and, similarly, have done nothing to plan for it. Instead we have allowed governments of all persuasions to talk about returning to full employment and continued to demonise the innocent victims of these changes, amongst whom around 40% are functionally illiterate and innumerate). Until enough of us start to say ‘up with this we will not put’ it will be ever thus.

    • jwebster2 March 21, 2021 at 6:15 am Reply

      There are a lot of ‘left behind’.
      At the food bank I would guess that perhaps 30% of clients have mental health issues? (Purely a guess and I suspect different areas have different proportions)
      Mind you people have commented to me that if you don’t have mental health issues before you start having to deal with the Department of Work and Pensions, you will when you are having to rely on them 😦

      • Doug Jacquier March 21, 2021 at 12:00 pm

        With respect, Jim, I think you have missed my point, namely that there is no solution to the problems you describe without a total rethink of what ‘work’ means and a recognition that ‘full employment’ is never going to return.

      • rootsandroutes2012 March 21, 2021 at 12:08 pm

        I’m not sure about that, Doug. There has probably never been ‘full employment’ – though we’ve sometimes got to the point in the curve where labour is very much a sellers’ market. However, the ‘total rethink’ we need might eventually lead to a trade-off where we surrender our current resource hungry lifestyles in return for our continued existence as a species. A side effect of that would be much higher rates of much lower-paid employment.

      • jwebster2 March 21, 2021 at 1:32 pm

        I didn’t disagree with you so much as your comment set me off on another thought 🙂

        But I think ‘full employment’ has been a mantra and blind hope rather than a policy governments have actively worked towards. We’ll need major societal change to achieve it genuinely. In this town there was a point when I was asked, “How many coffee shops does one down need?” Costa has three coffee shops in a town of 60K with any number of other coffee shops as well.

        It reminded me of a mate from Southern Ireland who commented that in the rural area he came from even the smallest of hamlets had a pub/bar, So much so that the bar’s clientele was composed of people who’d shut their own bar to drink at this one. I suspect he exaggerated for artistic effect but we could be getting close to that stage with regards coffee shops!

        They’re jobs but are they jobs that allow a family to be a family and get by?

  7. Bridgesburning Chris March 23, 2021 at 2:14 pm Reply

    Interestingly here in Canada each year we import migrant workers from Mexico and Central America for field work for the farmers. Even with unemployment at a high rate it seems Canadians simply won’t do simple work. A shame really. Dignity comes from doing a job, any job well.

  8. Lads – Like world March 29, 2021 at 2:08 pm Reply

    […] Lads […]

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