It’s time we look beyond economics to define who we are, what we do, our level of success and the value of our work and our life. In a world that doesn’t have enough good, full-time jobs for all who want them, we must relinquish the fantasy of “full employment.” To look beyond full employment doesn’t mean to focus on unemployment or boundless leisure but to an alternative view of work, of which a job is only a part.
One aspect of our changing world of work is the shift from a labor orientation to a knowledge orientation. Another is the re-emergence of self-sufficient workgroups or collectives. People often prefer to collaborate in their trade as part of a team rather than perform a micro-division of labor imposed by an assembly line. As the knowledge side of work expands and collectives proliferate, the contractual organization jostles with the idea of what contemporary employment looks like.
Although the knowledge industries may displace the labor and skill industries, there is evidence that the bulk of new jobs will come not from this source but from the personal service sector. A feature of our knowledge-based society is the propagation of small businesses that turn the things that many people do for themselves, like domestic work, health and beauty services and more, into formal economic activities.
The bad news is that I predict good jobs will be fewer and farther between in the future. They will be shorter as the 100,000-hour lifelong career gets whittled away and we work shorter weeks, years and lives. Physical jobs will be difficult, more dispersed and, most times, more precarious. Most people will end up earning less from their jobs over their lifetime, even if their actual pay rates go up. We shall tend, therefore, to have more time but less money, in late middle age.
Research says what people want out of a job is identity, friendship, status, the sense of creating something or contributing and of achieving.This is above the need for material rewards. But do we need to depend on a job for all these gratifications? Many people have shied away from the one-basket approach. They have put together a portfolio of activities and relationships. Will this approach become more common as we are forced to be less dependent on fading jobs? If so, do we have enough variety of opportunities to find those other activities and other relationships beyond employment?
Governments don’t encourage a thriving domestic self-help or DIY economy. Fewer traded services mean less taxable revenue, less control and regulation over safety, and less measurable wealth to stimulate the formal economy. But individuals who have made the trade-off between time and money often find that the freedom provided by one’s capability is more lasting than the precarious freedom of money to buy what is needed. As the trade-off is forced upon more people, will the conventional measures of success be changed, so that independence is given a value alongside material wealth?
Jobs must not be the only path to respectability in a society that at best can only guarantee jobs for part of our lives, or perhaps, to a section of society. No longer will the question “What will I be?” get fully answered by “What job shall I have?” The job will no longer be the whole measure of one’s identity, one’s status, one’s finances or one’s purpose. This may be the opportunity for a wider vision of humanity and of life. It is also an opportunity that many would prefer not to have. What will success mean if it isn’t defined in terms of money and job? Where will our sense of status and worth come from?
It is a scenario with more appeal and more to offer to the well-educated member of the professional middle classes. Those with credentials and saleable skills, who know how to manage their own lives, can sell themselves to others and realize that sacrifice today for future rewards is a sensible investment. It will be the so-called working classes who could find themselves without work — unless we do something.
If we cannot give everyone a job for the whole of their lives, would it be preferable to give everyone a job for part of their lives? Or to give some a job for all of their lives and to others none? What would this mean in practice? It might be that we start work later and end it earlier in our lives. Or would it mean more sabbaticals and longer holidays? Or shorter weeks and more part-time work? If so, what would happen to our earnings? If we could maintain the same productivity with fewer years or fewer hours, there would be no need for new jobs. Would we be prepared to accept less money for less work?
The father of modern capitalism, John Maynard Keys was also an advocate of Universal Basic Income and believed that our system could not be equitable if a sufficient safety net for all of society wasn’t provided. He further explained his position in his essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” writing “There is no country and no people who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”
It is the progressive destructuring of work that may force us to rethink much of the basis of the welfare state, which has anchored to the employment organization and to full-time lifetime employment for everyone. The survival of the fittest condemns the least fit. If a society or culture makes employment the purpose of existence but cannot provide enough jobs that people want or share out the available jobs fairly or provide alternative options for a rewarding life, then it is dupping us all.