Coronavirus shows we can – and must – change how we work
- Applied Institute for Research in Economics
David Spencer, University of Leeds
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the deep-seated problems of how and why we all work. It has shown how many of us perform jobs that are not essential. Lists of “key workers”, from cleaners to nurses and delivery drivers, shows society can get by without corporate lawyers, lobbyists and telemarketers.
But the crisis has also revealed the pressing need most of us face to work. We might not carry out work that is necessary but we still need to work in order to live. Work remains an obligation in society and something the majority of us have to do, whether the work we do is vital or not.
The question for the present is whether people can survive the loss of work, as the economy contracts. The alleviation of unemployment must be a priority in the short term.
Yet, there is a deeper question at stake. This question is whether we can fashion a system that reduces our dependency on work and creates the freedom for us to live without the constant pressure to work.
Beyond the crisis, there must be a vision of a better future where our lives are less defined by work and where our freedom to live well is extended.
Problems of work
The coronavirus pandemic throws up three key problems relating to work. One is the shortage of work itself. The prospect of mass unemployment – on a scale not witnessed since the 1930s – is a real one, as many businesses will not survive lockdown measures.
There is a question mark over how governments are responding to the crisis, given that their focus is on keeping workers in work. Job-retention schemes as implemented in the UK, for example, do not address the needs of those already without work and those set to lose their jobs. As critics have argued, more radical policies are clearly needed, not least an income guarantee that offers income, independent of work.
For others, the problem is an increase in work. The enforcement of home working coupled with school closures has meant combining work with childcare and caring responsibilities for many. Here a full day’s work has meant longer hours, both paid and unpaid.
The third problem relates to those still required to work outside of the home. Here the problem is overwork, as well as exposure to disease. NHS workers, without the proper protection, have raised concerns over their health and safety. Amazon workers, on the other hand, have taken strike action against the unsafe and unhealthy conditions they face. Generally, for frontline workers, the crisis has brought an increase in the intensity and pressure of work.
The value of work
The above problems highlight a further issue – the value of work and its distribution in society.
The economic response to coronavirus focuses on restoring work, not on changing or curtailing it in any way. This is understandable given the negative effects of unemployment on income and well-being. But there is no wider sense of the need to promote a different future where our need for work is lessened.
In the UK, for example, there is no talk of cutting work hours and redistributing work. Rather the goal is to maintain normal working patterns, with the standard five-day working week and established holiday entitlement. More widely, there is a concern to keep the same economic growth model, not change it. The restoration of growth is put before the reduction of work.
The present crisis has also highlighted what work is necessary for society to meet its needs. Conversely, it has exposed some work as superfluous and even pointless, from a social perspective. While work might be important for the purposes of creating profit for some individuals, it need not be seen as vital for creating the opportunity for the majority in society to live healthy and meaningful lives. Health provision, for example, has an essential quality that is lacking in the practice of stockbroking.
It is the obsession with economic growth which demands that more work is created, including more pointless jobs. The view that growth counts above everything else also leads to a devaluation of necessary work – carers, for instance, get paid pitifully less than stockbrokers even though they have more social value. Here the reason for the difference in pay reflects the influence of power and status, rather than the provision of real needs.
On pay, it is clear that without a radical revaluation of work, then workers such as carers will continue to be underpaid. It is evident too that without some kind of basic income there will be no escape from the discipline of work. More generally, there will be no way to stop work being the centre of human life, without overcoming the obsession with higher growth.
Reimagining the future
This crisis must be an opportunity to reimagine how we work and how we live.
There must be a recognition of the failure of the system as it exists now. Given the present policy focus, we face the prospect of returning to work and being denied the freedom to work less. We also face the possibility of restoring jobs that serve no social purpose and that exist merely to maintain growth that benefits only a few in society.
Further, we risk undervaluing the essential work that keeps us healthy. If the crisis is to serve any purpose, then it must be used as a reminder that the present system is moribund.
It is also important we seek change beyond the present. The restrictions of work must become a focus for resistance and transformation. We must see the endless pursuit of work as anathema to our well-being and instead come to embrace the idea of working less. Our goal should be to broaden the realm of freedom beyond work. There is simply no other way for us to thrive.
David Spencer, Professor of Economics and Political Economy, University of Leeds
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