Learning to labour



I’ve just struggled my way through Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour. I say struggled because this is a pretty heavy theoretical read, but also because I oscillated between finding it fascinating and being deeply annoyed by it. I’ll try and explain why the book provoked this dual reaction in me, but first I’ll try and fill in the basics of Willis’ argument.


Learning to Labour is subtitled ‘How working class kids get working class jobs’ and it sets out to explain how people take their path from school to work. Willis argues that kids from working class backgrounds move willingly, even enthusiastically, into jobs at the bottom of the economy that offer little possibility for either job satisfaction or advancement. Willis would argue that this process of people moving into poorly paid and unsatisfying jobs is an essential condition of capitalism. However, he explores why the wage slaves march into this situation as happily as they do. Willis bases his ethnographic study on the transition from school to work of twelve lads at a Midlands school.


At the centre of Willis’ book are a small group of lads. The lads don’t like the formal curriculum at school, they misbehave, sit at the back of the class, cheek their teacher and indulge in petty crime when the opportunity arises. The lads represent what Willis calls a counter-school culture. This counter-school culture is a kind of resistance that enables them to make it through school without absorbing its ideological values. Instead it creates its own ideology based on machismo, fetishisation of manual work and a complete disregard for learning in the sense understood by the school. Willis goes on to argue that the counter-school culture fulfils the function of smoothing the transition of the lads into shop floor culture. Their ability to survive and resist the school culture then becomes their ability to resist and survive in capitalism. On one hand their attitudes limit them and reduce the (very limited) possibility of social mobility afforded by education, but on the other hand, buying into the counter-school culture is the beginning of a strategy that will enable them to survive in the drudgery of the shop floor.


One thing that we should remember when reading Willis is that the book was written in 1977. Just as Frank Parsons or Donald Super are products of their time, Willis’ structuralism and discussion of a homogonous blue collar labour market are also deeply linked to the historical circumstances in which he was writing. Nonetheless Willis’ work has more than historical interest. The counter-school culture he describes is very much still with us and many young people are still opting to move into bottom of the economy with minimal violence required from the state. Willis’ book grapples with these issues in a creative and highly articulate way. His ability to draw connections between the sub-culture of young people and the wider political economy is extremely thought provoking.


Regular readers of this blog may remember that I waxed lyrical about a book called The Milltown Boys Revisted. The Milltown Boys Revisited covers very similar ground to Learning to Labour, but for my money is a more convincing read. Willis’ Learning to Labour builds a much more elaborate theoretical construct on top of the data that is unearthed by the ethnography. Willis makes a lot of bold claims about the way in which the counter-school culture operates and also what its significance is that I couldn’t help but feel were not really supported by the data he had. It raises a lot of interesting questions but doesn’t really chase these questions down sufficiently. Willis also looks briefly at other groups of young people e.g. disaffected youths in middle class schools, engaged youths in working class schools, different ethnicities and girls. All of these throw open huge questions that I recognise can’t be dealt with in this book, but by avoiding them Willis makes it difficult to feel that his conclusions would hold up. For example, how do engaged boys in working class schools make the transition into work in comparison to the disaffected? Does it actually make any difference in terms of destination, job satisfaction, integration into the shop floor culture and advancement. Willis does discuss these things but I didn’t feel that he really had the data to back it up.


Perhaps the thing that I found most difficult was Willis’ discussion of resistance. His argument that the counter-school culture is a form of resistance against an alien ideology seems right to me. However, as Willis discusses it is also an enormously self-defeating one. The lads who subscribe to the counter-school culture are, for the most part, condemning themselves to a life at the bottom of the economy. They realise the unfairness of this and struggle with this idea themselves. However Willis doesn’t really give any space to consideration of alternative forms of resistance. He does discuss the attempt by the teachers to use “progressive” teaching techniques to come up with an educational paradigm that is less confrontational, but he doesn’t look at other modes or discourses of resistance that might exist amongst any of the students. This may be because they are not there in the classroom (which I doubt) but it is certain that there are alternatives within the shop floor culture. Willis explores how counter-school culture interacts with the hierarchical formation of the factory, but does not look at how it interacts with the alternative structures that undoubtedly (in 1977) existed through the trade union organisation.


Willis’ work is a welcome alternative to an extreme structuralism that sees people as merely being shepherded by the economic conditions around them. His subjects demonstrate creativity and agency in the pursuit of their own aims. Nonetheless their aims ultimately strengthen and reinforce existing structures.  However this study remains within the confines of education and work and fails to explore the wider identity that these young people are likely to build for themselves in a host of different spheres (work, leisure, political activity, sub-culture, music etc). I would also have liked it to look wider and to draw in other types of young people in order to give it a broad enough perspective to really answer the question as to why working class kids get working class jobs.


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