“Work.” It’s all in the mind.
You know, and I know, that ‘work’ is largely broken. A huge amount of the population is overworked, stressed and missing out on the important things in life. (Anyone who’s witnessed the recent troubles on Southern Rail in the last few months will have seen this thrown sharply into focus – family time a distant memory, school plays and performances missed, relationships compromised. If people didn’t already work such long hours, a period of disruption wouldn’t matter so much.)
Meanwhile the other half of the population is struggling to get by with no job, or simply to squeeze enough hours out of short-term and ‘flexible’ contracts to make ends meet – what academic and writer Guy Standing has termed ‘the precariat’.
And it’s hardly going to get better. Andy Pemberton has pointed out that the Brexit protest vote wasn’t just a vote against a more globalised world, but a more digital one – against a world where Uber can make years of learning ‘the knowledge’ redundant overnight, where universal access to information, automation and AI are destroying or downgrading the jobs that people once assumed would see them through life.
The good news is that you and I aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed this – and that alternatives are on the horizon. Universal Basic Income is an idea whose time hasn’t yet come. But it will. Paying everyone a basic monthly amount as their birthright will, it’s argued, open up possibilities, allowing some to pursue money, status and wealth, and allowing others to concentrate on family, learning, sport, the arts – or simply ‘work and play’ in equal measure as previous generations did.
Meanwhile the New Economics Foundation has long promoted the idea of a 21-hour working week – changing the arbitrary, 100-year old distinction between ‘the week’ and ‘the weekend’ and introducing a world where more people work, but all people work less.
No doubt more alternatives will be presented all the time – and many are inventing their own by pursuing freelance or ‘portfolio’ careers.
But before we can even consider an alternative model, we have to change the model in our heads.
A trial of UBI was voted down in Switzerland simply because the majority couldn’t cope with the idea of paying people to do nothing. Those without work are commonly viewed as parasites, lazy or scroungers – a deeply unjust idea in a world where it’s structurally impossible for everyone to work. (And one that leads to high levels of depression, anxiety, social breakdown and suicide.)
To put it more simply, we value work. But we can’t provide it.
(Or won’t. Neoliberal economics is posited on the idea of driving down the value of work for as many people as possible. Automating, devaluing or shrinking the workforce is too often the goal of those concerned only with shareholder value.)
So, the notion of work needs to change. How we think about it. How we do it. How we value it as a society and as individuals.
That’s already starting to happen with a new generation of employees, who don’t see themselves as ‘employees’. A generation who work while they play (accessing emails in the bath), and play while they work (doing Facebook at their desks). A generation who want more value from work – purpose, growth, stimulation, relationships. Because they spend more time at it, and get less financial reward from it, than their predecessors.
With all that in mind, how does it change the way you might think about recognition and reward for your employees? How does it change how you might attempt to engage them, so that you get more value from each other? How does it change how you might measure people and value beyond hours spent and profits made?
More importantly, how does it change how you think about work itself? Because a broken system will eventually get mended. And you want to be one of the people mending it.
PS: By way of a bit of intellectual stimulation let me leave you with this poem by Philip Larkin.