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New Labour - Summer 2023
Kwajo TweneboaPhotography Duncan Loudon

New labour: how young Britons are reinventing traditional work

Butcher, bricklayer, time machine-maker: across the UK, the dust is being blown off jobs that defined older generations – we journey to the farms, brickyards and kitchens to trace the rupture and meet the people bringing new moves to a mad country

Taken from the summer 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

There’s a moment in Annie Jones’s career that she calls “the Turning Point”. She had joined a small, family-run meat merchant in the Derby Road area of Ipswich for milk money at the age of 13, and was finally ready to butcher her first loin. Shop-owner George Debman – the kind of gentle Surgeon General you see propping up any typical English meat counter – presented her with a pork steak to carefully bone and carve for the day’s service. Staring down, Annie felt an affinity with the steel worktop decorated with bloodied ribs and marbled pig dorsal, realising, she recalls, that this was “finally where I am supposed to be.” 

Now 20, when we talk Annie is three weeks away from finishing an apprenticeship qualification at an Ipswich meat college. The course comprises everything from “sausage exams” to knife skill workshops and on-the-job tutelage. During our conversation, Annie uses the word taboo more than once – first to describe the kind of carnivorous career path she is destined on as a member of an increasingly vegan-identifying generation, and then about the kinds of jobs that seem to be sinking into the hypnagogic Horrible Histories sludge across Britain.

“Butchery is like an art, because we all have ways of doing it,” reflects Annie of her seven year tenure at G Debman’s. It’s an artform, also, that she didn’t have to jump through hoops to try out. Before young people even consider the English university system today, they have to get their heads around the annual nationwide £9000+ tuition fee cap introduced under David Cameron’s government in 2010. Butchery meant that she could earn a wage a whole five years before you can even begin a degree here, and use what she knew about modern business and progressive social media to modernise a form of labour steeped in tradition. 

Annie is aware that her path intersects conversations of class, gender, the climate crisis and age in modern Britain. But it isn’t just old, male butchers she has come up against at work: even her best friend at school, who temporarily went vegetarian, wouldn’t acknowledge her career choice for a while. “There’s a big divide in the way things are done,” she says of her industry, “but a lot of butchers that I've seen welcome new ideas from the younger generation, because they help with their businesses.” Recently, Annie met a young butcher selling novel ‘ready-meal’ style cut-packages to shops.

There’s evidence everywhere of the identity politics that knot up notions of work here. When the Coronation happened in May, long-forgotten royal roles were re-animated in front of millions like rusted treasures wrenched from the shipwreck of the Sierra Madre. From the 15th Earl of Loudoun’s role as bearer of a set of gold-embroidered knight’s spurs, to the 600-year-old crystal wand carried by City of London mayor Nicholas Lyons, it was a beautifully carnivalesque depiction of deep-onset British dementia, reaching a head in the royal-peculiar church of Westminster Abbey. But if Generations Z and Alpha are starting work younger and as business models increasingly digitise and tech-up, the stakeholders of traditional workforces need to loosen their corsets and snap into now.

The cross-generational workforce war rages hardest on the farmyards of England, reckons Will Young, the 23-year-old sheep farmer The Cut once described as a “yassified Wallace and/or Gromit”. Despite his every effort to turn the experience of farming into harmless content cartoons on his 1.9m-followed TikTok, he presents a pretty nightmarish depiction of the industry in real life. “Social media has also helped me diversify the farm – because farming is a dying breed,” says Will, whose parents own stables in Buckinghamshire. “I don't think that younger people want to do it; there's enough hype around it, and I think the main reason is that people who own farms – if it's the granddad or the dad – don't want to hand over control. The older generations want to keep their wellies on.”

One way Will – who followed his nose for dystopia onto Love Island this year – has tried to inject fun into farming has been to turn his fleet into a soap opera. Listening to him reel off the names of his favourite animals, he could just as easily be gossiping about the new cast of Coronation Street. “We’ve got a couple of pigs, Timon and Pumbaa, who get fed first because they're my favourites,” he quips. “I always give them a feed and give them a cuddle, give them a scratch on their belly or a scratch on their head, and then we'll move on to the alpacas...” It’s hard to deny how strangely infectious Will’s enthusiasm is. In the wake of the virality of pet content like Big Cats of Instagram and Funnydog TikTok, it takes the savvy of a contemporary businessman to skewer social media with a spitty alpaca. “They're not as cuddly as the pigs because they tend to spit, the cheeky little animals. And then I'll feed the pet lambs with a milk bottle – or if they're a bit older, a little bit of cake.”

Like farmer Will, very deliberately, Norfolk-based bricklayer Darcie Richards has put her trade in front of a young online audience. Broke and bored, the now 27-year-old followed her dad and two brothers onto a building site one day wearing a pink high-vis jacket and a hard hat. After posting a few videos of herself shovelling mortar and moving cinder blocks, she unlocked a strangely arcane and fastidious wave of hate on Instagram – young men accusing her of laying brick too slowly. It was only when she watched herself back on social media that she was able to chart her progress – “I was like, I actually look like I’m good at this now” – eventually migrating her content to OnlyFans, a site that now doubles as an activist soapbox. 

Across Instagram, TikTok and OnlyFans, Darcie discovered that she wasn’t alone as a young woman on a British building site, and has since cultivated a small workforce network across the internet. “I think if I hadn't started posting on social media, I probably wouldn't have stuck it out,” the builder says of the relentless trolling. “The people that hate me online are the reason I'm probably still doing really well, it sparked a fire in me.” One of her first TikTok clips in 2020 – a pretty innocuous 15 seconds of chopping and spreading cement – racked up 9.1m views overnight, and in 2022 she secured an ad gig with Google who cast her next to London MC Big Zuu. While Will and Darcie have both used social media to bring attention to fields of work that might feel guarded by older generations, their hit rates have unlocked fresh income streams. If a TikTok clip can land you a gig at Google or a stint on primetime TV, in theory, anyone can leapfrog into lucrative content creation off the back of their day job. “I get quite a few younger people messaging me saying how they wanted to go into the trade,” Darcie says, “and asking, ‘should I go to college?’”

“The people that hate me online are the reason I'm probably still doing really well” - Darcie Richards

If you know how to work with the internet, you can use it to open doors and chip away at specific goals. Social media, as a form of modern labour, isn’t just a new means of money-making, it can be used to scale up personal campaigns. In 2020 Kwajo Tweneboa, now 24, watched his terminally ill dad die in the run-down flat they shared in Mitcham, south London. It was the end of a relentless run of complaints he had filed to his landlord, who’d done nothing to improve things for his family. Kwajo posted pictures of his flat – which at the time looked like a scene from a shelled-out postwar Saigon – before embarking on a nationwide landlord-shaming campaign, capturing the worst living conditions he could find and interviewing tenants.

Out of passion, Kwajo became a kind of on-the-road UK war reporter, before his stories caught the attention of Westminster. He never thought of himself as a campaigner or journalist, he says, but simply used his broadband connection to experiment. “You sometimes have to avoid walking traditional routes,” says Kwajo, who now regularly meets with council members and government officials to discuss housing policy. “When I started, a lot of people were asking me, ‘what does a 22-year-old know?’ But it has ended up with me sitting in rooms with government members advising them on changes that need to be made.” Recently, Kwajo has been spending time in the waiting areas of local authority offices to observe how homeless people are treated by civil servants.

As the UK’s youngest MP, Nottingham’s Nadia Whittome has coalesced her knowledge of influential grassroots organising with political policy making. “I think it would be easy to feel ground down by Westminster, but I live in the house that I lived in as a teenager and my points of reference are the same,” she tells me. The day after she was elected as a Labour constituency leader in 2019, the party suffered their worst general election defeat in over eighty years and she was glued to a vomit bucket with the flu. She remembers her first few weeks in Westminster in vivid colour. “Diane Abbott sat down with me, and said, ‘it's tough in here, and we’ve got a real fight on our hands.’ As a young, queer, socialist woman of colour, I felt hyper visible, but also a bit invisible at the same time.”

She quickly linked up with John McDonnell who, she says, has a knack for “using different mechanisms to win things”. The 71-year-old backbench MP’s outside-the-box philosophies and ideas drew her in, especially in thinking up fresh ways to square up to the Conservatives, still the most electorally successful party in global political history. “John called me in to see him on my first day, and introduced me to his team and told me what the place was about,” she explains. “That was really helpful, because obviously at 23 years old I'd never had this kind of job before – in fact, I've never worked in a job where I was the most junior person in the workplace, let alone recruiting a whole team of people. You don't get help with that. You start getting emails from constituents from the minute you are elected, but you don’t have caseworkers, you don't have an office structure.” In 2020, Nadia’s climate education bill – currently the first in British history to have been drafted by students – was absorbed into Labour party policy.

“I think it would be easy to feel ground-down by Westminster, but I live in the house that I lived in as a teenager and my points of reference are the same” - Nadia Whittome

It’s useful for Nadia to cross generational and party lines in her work – she is, after all, after the full support of parliament in pushing bills across the line. Like Nadia, not everyone I spoke to for this piece felt so alienated by generations before them. In 2016, 33-year-old Adele Williamson became the first female bespoke shoemaker at Tricker’s, one of shoemaking capital city Northampton’s oldest factories. Although she’s proud to tip the gender balance in her workforce albeit decimally, she was equally happy to act as ambassador for the brand and trade globally, and in 2019 was commissioned to create a pair of opera pumps for King Charles (the then Prince of Wales). “I'd never experienced a factory quite like it (when I first entered Tricker’s) – original stain glass windows, a vintage collapsible door elevator, a strong smell of leather, the sound of machines…” says Adele, who graduated from De Montfort University with a degree in footwear design in 2015. “We need to keep this craft alive and the skills circulating within our community as best we can.”

While ambient turf wars continue to burn through the UK this summer, and work handbooks are shredded and battlelines redrawn, there are a few young entrepreneurs laying down rules as tech breakthroughs happen, oblivious to all this village-idiot noise. At just ten, from her bedroom in south-west London, Avye Couloute founded a collective called Girls Into Coding, after noticing a gender imbalance at the robotics workshops she was going to. As a young person in a young industry, Avye was able to build momentum for her project quickly, and now has a national following. “You are never too young for you and your ideas to have value, and that sometimes you have to be the one that takes the lead,” she says.

Avye remembers the first robot she made as a child, Frankenstein-ing an Iron Man into a kitsch-talking birthday doll. “I remember making a time machine with my dad, we glued loads of levers and dials all over it, and added the insides of an old radio. Although it was never going to work, it really got me thinking about technology.” It's a weird goosebumps moment hearing a 15-year-old talking about the magic and power of cyphers – “it’s fun to see something physical happen as a result of your code” – and how this power means she might never need to fold into the hierarchies of a traditional workforce, as generations have before her.

The rub in all of these conversations, from bricklaying to butchery and coding, is the changeable uses of the word conservative. It’s a term that is applied slightly differently across cultures, geopolitical regions and national workforces. In America, you’re a conservative – or, more specifically, a neocon – if you are entrepreneurial, using your skillset to progress your career, build a financial base and act as a gunslinger for the principles of the fifth amendment. In the UK, the word is used more literally, in an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ sense. As the colonial treasures were returned to the bottom of the ocean after the Coronation and the whole thing faded into a pastoral psychic ceremonial, I couldn’t help but think about this pervasive war fog, a fire that burns so brightly no-one can look at it directly.

Every Tuesday, Annie Jones visits her local market to select livestock for G Debman’s to butcher. It’s the best part of the job she comments coyly, as we round off our chat, and a sign that her boss trusts in her future in the industry. As a business owner forced to stay afloat in a world of competitive artisanal tastemaking and cooking influencer culture, bosses like him have to. You can’t protect your business if there’s nothing to conserve. Annie was trusted at the livestock market for her innovation, eye for detail and abilities, but for older stakeholders like Gary, it’s a symbolic transfer of faith, too. 

“There's a particular legitimacy in the moment that we're living in”, says ex youth MP and campaigner Athian Akec, when I ask him about work in 2023, and the state of the UK. “This is a moment where things are being reshaped and the maps are being redrawn and the boundaries for the future can become more open.” Just like Avye and her birthday party robot, people like Nadia, Will, Kwajo, Darcie, Adele and Annie are using their native knowledge of the internet, technology and progressive conversation to reprogramme the industries they work in and, at the end of the day, piss a lot of old gentlemen off. You would too if you could.