A number of folks responded to yesterday’s blog and wondered what the solutions might be to a future without work. Those answers are beyond my knowledge. I know that in my time in politics that the subject was rarely broached. But at different non-political sessions I attended (university seminars, United Nations special panels), the subject was front and centre and carried with it its own growing body of research that points to a difficult future.
Perhaps what is required is an entirely new look at how modern societies function and the role that work – physical, mental, emotional – can play in arenas outside of economic production. What would happen if, in addition to production, we moved employment in the post-industrial world to embrace sectors of social responsibility, of citizen activity? What if we began implementing economic policies that took on those activities that manufacturing, information or technology sectors could not do? Would it be possible to provide employment benefits through investment in high-quality human capital that we critically require at this juncture of civilization’s development?
We must understand what this means: a dynamic and structural shift to an economic paradigm that includes and rewards caring for ourselves, the elderly, our children, and for the planet through targeted expenditures for the training and support of such sectors. Research in the fields of both psychology and neuroscience show that high-quality care is fundamental to the best kind of human development.
The free market system, described as the overseeing “invisible hand” by Adam Smith, has been permitted to remain detached from the human condition despite tremendous wealth being generated. It is time to break through that traditional model to develop economics that provide empowerment to the human condition and not merely wealth – or the lack of it.
Consider our most common economic terms – free markets, inflation, interest rates, gross national product, international trade, globalization, corporate profits, privatization, outsourcing. These, and many others, have little to do with our daily lives as citizens. They form the lexicon of the economists, politicians and policy makers, and they have so much captured the economic language of the world that alternatives are almost unthinkable.
It is ironic that the word economics comes from the Greek term oikonomia, which meant “managing a household.” While those economic terms listed above surely affect our homes, they are neither sourced in our habitats or consciously realized in our families.
Our economic models must begin to provide greater priority and value to those aspects of modern life that enable more productive communities and a more equitable world. They must transform current dysfunctional government policies and business practices.
It is a challenge that is as political as it is economic. We require moral precepts and civic reasons to inspire and force a new change, a new economic logic, in which work expands into the care of society in general in ways sufficient to ensure citizen responsibility. Serious and comprehensive thought must be expensed on determining how to resource new employment opportunities – meaningful work – throughout society in general. But it will prove insufficient if the present wealth being generated in the trillions of dollars is not channeled, at least in part, to the cause of overall societal and environmental renewal.
We stand at a precipice between our past and future, considering the possibility of turning history back on itself and putting humankind into a kind of forced servitude reminiscent of earlier centuries. The irony would be rich if it weren’t so troubling: just at the moment of our greatest wealth, we run the risk a future without work.
Democracy was supposed to be about the merits of citizenship and its responsibilities to the human condition. But with the birth of the middle-class we began the process of losing our way, journeying down a path that gave more merit and more force to the wage earner rather than the citizen. We quickly discovered that we could pay civil servants to do the work of building communities for us and hived ourselves off to the greener fields of materialistic pleasure. There was a certain logic to this; as our communities became bigger and bigger, the sophistications of governing became more nuanced and specialized. But the process left us for decades without a growing understanding of the modern challenges facing our world, our country, our communities. It worked, apparently brilliantly, for a time. Our distractions didn’t appear to hurt us, and the growing professionalism of the bureaucratic class prepared us for modern collective life.
At some point in the past 30 years it all began to go wrong, though slowly and imperceptibly at times. The political class made the shift from responsible oversight of the citizenry to a form of babysitting the consumers in a manner that was almost seamless. Things suddenly became about putting more discretionary money in people’s pockets as opposed to expanding the infrastructure required to prepare our citizens for impending challenges.
Economist Lester Thurow has been over this ground many times, and concludes: “Our future is the masterless labourer, wandering from employer to employer, unable to build a career.” Well, that only needs to be the case if we refuse to look at new models for our modern society. That moment will come. Our worth and self-respect depend upon its arrival.