Increasingly, if you have a job, the hours are likely to be long, and the work low-paid and insecure. It’s just as bad if the hours are too few and low-paid to sustain a livelihood. If you’re unemployed, it’s easy to end up being treated as a second class citizen – excluded from many forms of civic and social life.
Youth unemployment is particularly harsh and socially divisive, often leading to generations being trapped in subsistence. But even when you are in work it can seem like a treadmill, struggling to meet the costs of living and a home, and in consumer cultures, it’s constantly promised that a better life lies just the other side of the next shopping trip. Evidence says otherwise.
The irony of all of this is that, in an era when the great challenge is to meet everyone’s needs as we make the rapid transition to live within the bounds of the biosphere, there is no shortage of good work that needs doing. An awakening to the ‘green collar economy’ has institutions as diverse as the International Labour Organisation and multiple industry associations predicting tens of millions of new jobs in low-carbon sectors.
At the same time, both public and private employers are finding that many workers realise greater satisfaction by opting to work shorter weeks, helping to spread the benefits of employment more broadly. Even the economic grandfather of work specialisation, Adam Smith, warned of the human consequences of poor-quality, repetitive work. Now the circular and green economies seem to offer ways to get off the consumer treadmill of endless material accumulation (for those who could even afford it or were prepared to go into debt), as well as opportunities for more meaningful work. By changing ingrained working patterns, the conditions for rapid transition can be created.