Work isn’t working anymore. Labour productivity has fallen in the UK since the financial crisis; 13.5 million people are living in low-income households; real wages are falling and the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, is rising.
The sustainability and quality of jobs in our economy is also decreasing – 7.1 million workers now face precarious working conditions, meaning that uncertainty (and for many, anxiety) itself is now built into our employment system. According to some estimates, 30 per cent of UK jobs could potentially be automated away by the early 2030s. Depending on the sector, this will mean a remarkable reduction of required hours of human labour. With less work to go around, we will find ourselves in heightened competition with machines and each other, ever more desperate for stability.
Is this our only future? No. But in order to change it and move beyond this crisis, we first need to confront our very conception of work. For a long time we have thought of work as a matter of individual choice – a free, private agreement between a single person and an employer. You, the thinking goes, are free to pick whatever job you like as long as the employer is happy to have you on board and there are a sufficient number of jobs created by the free market.
This isn’t true. Our economy is planned and regulated through taxes and subsidies to private enterprises, like our rail services. The dependence of the market on state planning is fundamental; the jobs you have are ones that the state has allowed to exist. Why not plan the economy differently and create new types of jobs? Ones that are stable, secure and properly paid.
The problem is that this isn’t in the interest of those who plan the economy; those individuals who currently benefit from this system. Income inequality is predicted to rise to record levels once housing costs have been taken into account, as the richest 10 per cent will have incomes more than six times those of the poorest 10 per cent. Businesses are paying their workers less and making increased profits, while workers struggle to pay their rents.
Let’s stop deceiving ourselves into thinking that the looming crisis of work is a series of individual problem cases that can be solved, for example, simply by forcing people to become more “employable”. We’re seeing this fallacy play out in the area of graduate employment: despite the fact that the UK churns out university graduates at a higher rate that than most European countries, our graduates are not going into graduate-level jobs. Brits are training themselves, but there simply aren’t enough decently paid and stimulating jobs out there for them to apply for. Instead they are stuck in low paid and insecure work.
As well as asking for new types of jobs to be created, we can also use this crisis of work as an opportunity to reconsider how we organise our lives beyond the limits of the shop floor. For example, the so-called “rise of the robots” is a problem for society as a whole: it requires answering large-scale, structural questions about what to do when jobs disappear. How do we deal with unemployment? Do we begin to separate pay from work? Can we create new income streams as people retrain or become surplus to the economy’s requirements?
Equally, the explosion of precarious forms of work should be understood on an appropriately macro scale and not as a series of unfortunate, private, contractual arrangements. As jobs become scarce is there a way to share hours between people at a national level? A reorganisation of labour hours could drastically reduce the workweek for some, while giving others new opportunities. From March to May of 2017, 32.01 million people collectively worked a total number of about 1,028,756,195 paid hours each week, with an average of 32.1 hour per person. If this work were redistributed to the working age population (roughly 41.4 million people) equally it would be roughly 24.8 hours per week. Job shares could become the future.
However, if we are to truly rethink work, we need to reconsider what counts as work in the first place. Work is a universal, social institution that affects everyone, whether you are doing paid work or not. If work is to be understood as an economic activity, then housework, child-rearing, care and other essential – usually unpaid – activities predominantly carried out by women must be included in the conversation; after all, these are the tasks that maintain the daily lives of the population.
Expanding our understanding of work to incorporate the activities of social reproduction – that is, the very caring acts that mean we are able to care for existing workers, as well as creating a new generation – beyond the wage-based world is a real step towards achieving a more equal distribution of life’s labours. We might then start discussing proposals such as a reduced working week understood as a pragmatic necessity or a guaranteed basic income understood as a recognition of and remuneration for this gendered, domestic work that society relies upon.
The economist and philosopher Andre Gorz famously declared that, “We must dare to prepare ourselves for the Exodus from 'work based society': it no longer exists and will not return”. Whether this Exodus means emancipation from uncertainty, poverty and from the gendered toil of housework depends on thinking in collective terms. We need new utopias, and to get there we have to ask the big questions about how we want our lives to be organised, and strive for the future of work we want.
Matt Cole is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds Business School and a researcher at the Autonomy Institute, an independent think tank focused on the future of work
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