INCREASINGLY AT THE LONDON FOOD BANK WE ARE encountering those recently without work or holding down one or two minimum wage jobs as they seek to make ends meet for their families. It’s an endlessly disillusioning process – one showing no sign of abatement.
But this is the new world, the new economy, the new reality of employment. Millions are facing it, and despite training and education they are witnessing that link between work and wealth disappear in real-time and with real fallout. We see what happens when democracy stumbles along through cycles of low voter turnout and the dysfunction that inevitably follows. Suddenly power migrates upward, with citizens cut off from it in ever-increasing ways. Well, it’s now like that with employment. Wealthy owners and shareholders move farther off into the world elite as workers watch them disappear over the horizon in an endlessly globalized world. Unless corrected, this de-linking will result in the ultimate separation between democracy and wealth.
Aristotle used to say that “pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” Well, not so much anymore. Surveys continue to point to the disillusionment and dissatisfaction experienced by workers as their direct association with wealth creation and production disappears.
As we proceed down this path, we are confronted with a developing world of ironies and opposites. Employability replaces employment. There are people without jobs and jobs without people. Part-time jobs are easily outnumbering full-time ones. Employment numbers go down as people giving up looking for work increases. A growing number of people are working with declining benefits, or none at all, as employment legislation comes under the gun. Rapidly disappearing are the pensions, occupation safety initiatives, employment insurance, and meaningful work environment so necessary to healthy productivity.
Futurists like Jeremy Rifkin talk about the likelihood of “a near workerless information society.” For all intents and purposes, he believes that employment reached its peak years ago and a steady decline is now sinking in.
Then we get those confusing declarations about how it isn’t government that creates jobs, but the free market. But with capitalism enjoying more freedoms that ever in history, we are left to wonder: where are the jobs if this declaration is true? The real answer, naturally enough, is that consumers provide the incentives for job creation. Yet what happens when consumers, or all those people on minimum wage or no wage at all, have little disposal income to utilize? If work is still the way people earn their livings, how can any future be productive if people can’t find the jobs required to sustain such a construct? If wealth can be increasingly generated by investing in more wealth, why would investors, or companies, show any real interests in making their profits in the historic fashion by hiring workers?
We’re in a bind and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the vital connection between work and meaning is imploding. Having a job used to mean holding status in a community. One provided for her or his family. Skills were important, and applying them with diligence was highly regarded.
Our political parties, and the great structure of bureaucracy around them, know all this to be true, but instead they talk about jobs as though everything is normal. Fair enough; we’ve been hearing that for decades. The real question, however, is how can they get all this new wealth and fragile employment in the same room? Or will they even try?
Can we envision a different kind of economy, where work among the elderly, education, those in need of mental health support, the sick, homeless, poor, in libraries and culture, those requiring work training, those in research, or in community and international development take on greater importance? Of course we can, but that would mean partnering with the wealth generators within capitalism to produce a healthy consumer context and better quality of life for everyone. We wait in vain for a political or a free market commitment to that kind of venture. But should it not happen, then both capitalism and democracy will continue on the parallel slide they are already experiencing, and nothing but an agitated and alarmed citizenship can save them.
On October 2, 2015, the London Poverty Research Centre at King’s University College, London, will hold a special economic conference where two economists – Mike Moffatt from the Ivey Business School and the Mowat Centre, and Armine Yalnizyan, from the Canadian Policy of Policy Alternatives – help us to consider the nature of modern employment and what must be done to put meaning back into it and into our communities.