A new life for two bobbins and an acorn: Bartering is back, bringing a sense of community to the post-industrial age, says David Nicholson-Lord

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HOW DO revolutions begin? Quietly, in many cases. This week, the first book on the local exchange and trading system (Lets) phenomenon is published. Lets, an updated version of the barter economy, has mushroomed in the past three years, with more than 20,000 people in 200 schemes swapping their home-baked bread for somebody else's baby-sitting, or gardening, or carpentry skills, via new and exotically named local 'currencies' such as bobbins, bricks and acorns. Most of the publicity has treated Lets as fun. Many people think it is a sign of something more profound.

Lets schemes perform financial magic: they allow people to sell and buy things without money. The trick is the 'currency' - in effect, cashless credits on a central accounting system. Part of the reason for the Lets phenomenon is thus the novelty, in an age obsessed with money, of doing without it. But the soaring popular appeal of Lets has a much more deep-seated basis, to do with the huge shifts taking place in employment.

The 'job for life' age has gone for good, part-time work has boomed, employment is polarising into a core group of full-time workers and a large and growing contingent of 'out-workers', supplying services as and when they are needed. Unemployment is likely to continue at historically high levels, its prominent casualties including the long- term unemployed and young people who have never worked.

What do you do if you lose your (full-time) job? The traditional answer is that you mourn briefly and look for another one. Suppose there aren't any others - they've all been downsized, delayered or moved to China? Is there a world beyond employment?

The answer, increasingly, is that there is. It lies a decade or two in the future but it is here now in outline, albeit a blurred and imprecise one. What this outline shows is a decaying, or metamorphosing, work ethic and a more complex (or nerve-racking) working life. The money may not be as good, but there may be other compensations - the opportunity for self-development, more time for home, family, and possibly community.

There are now signs that some form of collective psychological watershed is being reached about the inevitability of large-scale unemployment. Earlier this year Life Without Work, a book-cum-advice manual written by Christine Ingham, a former teacher who spent two years out of work, celebrated unemployment as a time to reassess and change direction, to escape from the one-dimensionality and vulnerability of working full- time for one employer.

Recent survey evidence suggests that many people are beginning to share this view of dependent employment. Research by Patricia Hewitt for her book About Time, published last year, found that millions of women prefer working part-time to full-time, and that full-time male middle-managers in their fifties would 'jump at the chance' of a three- day week. Juliet Schor's bestseller The Overworked American came to a similar conclusion: Americans work 164 more hours a year now than 20 years ago and would happily trade more leisure time for less money. Other British surveys have spoken of a 'generally unrecognised rise in discontinuous employment' and a climate of increasing anxiety about job security.

What emerges is a composite pyschological portrait of post-industrial man and woman. Brought up since the Sixties to expect life to be rich and fulfilling, they find themselves working longer hours - Britain's are the longest in Europe - in narrower jobs. And while they have more complex lives there is less time to fulfil them.

Their offspring appear to be drawing some interesting conclusions from their view of the contemporary work scene. Asked for Mintel's Family Lifestyle survey last year whether success in a job was 'central to how I feel about myself', 31 per cent of the sample agreed. The highest agreement - 38 per cent - came in the 45-54 age group, but it declined with years to 20 per cent among those aged 15-24. Younger people, of course, tend to grow into the work ethic - but what happens if they never get a job?

Lets fits into this framework well. It offers hope beyond unemployment and outside the cash economy. It translates traditionally unvalued personal skills into a more rounded and varied concept of work. It is also part of an enormous growth during the past decade or so of what has been labelled the social, or community, economy.

The social economy comprises a host of initiatives largely ignored by Westminster politics and the national media - not least because they resist pigeon-holing. They include food co-operatives, telecommuting, credit unions (more than 400, acting as alternative savings and lending institutions), community businesses, community-supported agriculture (direct buying from farmers). They have close ties with the informal or black economy. They also have a common perception of the waste involved in mass unemployment and a desire to remedy this locally.

Why locally? Partly because these initiatives are attempting to re-establish a sense of community - Lets schemes have been likened to a 'mental village'. A recent national conference entitled 'Beyond Unemployment', organised by the Cleveland-based group Respond, offered further clues. It painted a picture of energy, spirit and skills as well as suffering and waste among the local unemployed. Here was no dependent underclass but a 'culture of enterprise' in which the 'boundaries between work and non-work are becoming fluid'. The lesson to emerge most strongly, however, was that such areas cannot be regenerated from Whitehall: they must, somehow, do it themselves.

Rooted in initiatives like Lets, a new local economic state is emerging. These changing economic relations are also the stuff of political transformation. Will the Government continue its habit of siding with the global business barons or will it give a leg-up to the local state? Will it, for example, tell the taxman to clamp down on Lets? And which of the parties will best capture these new energies and aspirations - or will they spill out in some other way? These are all points to ponder next time somebody knocks on your door offering home-grown vegetables.

'Lets Work - Rebuilding the Local Economy', Grover Books, pounds 8.99.

Mark Lawson's column will appear tomorrow.