What is work? This question has preoccupied me for some time and this post examines what work is and points to some of the problems with the ways work is organised in modern societies. Changes in the way we work are vital if we are to create strong sustainability and justice. A basic income can support the changes we need.
Work includes personal, family, community and civil society projects. Work, in its universal sense, means anything you have a commitment to making happen, personally as well as professionally; it is the job you accept from yourself and/or from others. Unpaid work includes care for self and other people, developing financial intelligence and looking after our finances, all kinds of learning, civic participation, developing an appreciation of ethical issues, growing and preparing food, participating in local and national politics, resting and renewing one’s energy. This understanding of work involves all the actions necessary for projects, commitments and ambitions that are important to us, paid or unpaid.
Many forms of work – paid and unpaid– are essential to the flourishing of individuals, society and economics. Paid work is an important resource in society. Jobs and other forms of paid work have a strong part to play in a balanced future of sustainable prosperity. But there is a lot of other work to be done also, which attracts no pay.
There are at least four forms of work: paid work, as an employee or self-employed person, work for others (care and social support), work for the collective good and self-care, including rest, relaxation and play. Each type of work needs to receive its due importance and allocation of time.
Work for others and work for the collective good can of course be done for pay, but a huge amount of it is also done for no pay. Work for the collective good was called ‘leisure’ or schole by the ancient Greeks, and was about participation in the polis or society. Of course, citizens in Ancient Greece did not engage in labour, or work for pay; this was done by slaves and women, ignoring the importance of essential work of household, food growing and preparation, etc
Shunning an expansive view of work, modern societies have very restricted ideas about it; the dominant understanding of work in modern societies has shrunk to the idea that the only ‘real’ or valid work is paid work or labour. Many people recognise the contribution that unpaid work makes to economy, society and individuals, but the dominant thinking about work allows politicians to go unchallenged when they talk about ‘getting Ireland back to work’, as if people were not working all the time in their communities, homes and families.
Unpaid work makes huge contributions to economy and society yet people who do unpaid work are not included in the present pension and sick-pay systems. Economic inactivity is defined as not working (for pay) or actively seeking paid work. Social welfare payments are called ‘Jobseekers’ Allowance’, implying that one is entitled to support only if one defines oneself as a jobseeker. Basic security as a right of citizenship or residence is ignored.
Paid workers are considered to contribute by producing goods and services that others buy, no matter how useless, even harmful, those goods and services may be. The payment of tax on earned income is also regarded as contribution. But income tax, while important, is a limited form of contribution. Many people in high-status, demanding jobs make little contribution to the caring and participative work that builds societies, having neither the time nor inclination to do so.
Paid work and jobs have gained such importance and taken over so much of our sense of what work is, because, for most of us, they are the only way to get income. Very few people can survive outside the employment system and this dependence on paid work encourages us to see paid work as separate from ‘life’, expressed in the term work-life balance. Language thus separates individuals ‘real lives’ from the paid work they do. And yet, paid work is closely linked with the recognition people receive from society. In fact, for many, life is their jobs or paid work. So if they lose that paid work, they consider that they are not living in any meaningful sense of the word.
This separation of paid work and the rest of life can also have the effect of separating us from the consequences of the paid work. Paid work is not our ‘real life’ but most of us have no choice about doing it because it is the only way we can get an income. So we can’t afford (literally) to think about the harm the work might be doing to other people or to the earth. All kinds of work have moral, political, social and emotional consequences but when it comes to jobs and paid work, we are rarely encouraged to think about those consequences.
Paid work at its best can provide a lot of the things that many of us want, such as money, a sense of self-worth and contribution, training, skills development, social interaction and workplace friendships. It helps us to develop our talents and aptitudes and provides a sense of identity. However, the paid work available to most people is not the best is could be and does not generate much that is useful for workers apart from money. Moreover, jobs are not created in order to help us develop our talents or give us a sense of identity. Furthermore, jobs are not the only way to gain a sense of self-worth, to make a contribution, to develop skills, interact socially, or to structure one’s time.
Work (paid and unpaid) is one of the chief ways we engage with the world. The way our working lives are organised affects hugely how we engage with our own development, and with our families, households, communities and the state. If we want to be able to organise ourselves to create ecologically stable and socially just futures, we need a different overall approach to work, one that values and supports all kinds of useful paid and unpaid work, that releases talents and energies and that actively shuns work that it harmful. A basic income could facilitate this change of approach.