OPINION

Is it time to rethink work as we know it?

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern got people talking when she raised the possibility of a four-day work week. Picture: Getty Images
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern got people talking when she raised the possibility of a four-day work week. Picture: Getty Images

Lockdown in my household saw my partner and me working harder than ever, on endless Zoom meetings, frantically redesigning events and teaching for the online world, stuck in our home with two teenagers doing all their studying, socialising and extracurricular activities on video calls.

It was noisy and chaotic, and it pushed our bandwidth to the limit, both literally and metaphorically. But we managed OK. We're among the lucky ones.

For many people, the coronavirus outbreak and response has seen them lose some or all of their work. For others, the pandemic has put them in harm's way in the course of their job, whether as medical professionals or in service industries. For almost all of us, it's brought dramatic changes to the way we work, making the previously unthinkable all too real, the previously impossible possible.

As much as anything else, amidst the tragedy, this moment gives us the opportunity to rethink the nature of work in our society. Instead of mouthing marketing slogans, we could challenge deeply held assumptions about how we work, for whose benefit, and why.

That's why it's so dispiriting to see Scott Morrison and his cheerleaders snapping back to tired old divisive rhetoric. This week's attack on people for allegedly preferring to stay on income support instead of looking for a job comes hot on the heels of last week's bizarre arts industry announcement, where the Prime Minister insisted that it was also about supporting the (valuable) tradies who build sets rather than just the (morally questionable?) creative artists themselves. The prejudices are blatant.

When Morrison says of the national cabinet that "it will be driven by a singular agenda, and that is to create jobs", we are left in no doubt about the types of jobs he means.

When work is gone, what happens? Fundamentally, if we cannot find paid work, should our society collectively give us the capacity to survive?

The Morrison view of the world is fundamentally extractive. Legitimate work is that which extracts resources like coal, gas or timber, soil, plants or animals, and turns them into wealth or physical property like buildings, roads and pre-packaged foods. Legitimate spaces of work are those in which humans are similarly treated as a resource from which labour can be extracted to create wealth.

But moments of crisis like this one enable us to challenge the political common sense and shift the whole political ground.

In the last few months, we've had to confront questions like: Does our job matter more than our health? More than our family? More than our community?

Who are essential workers? Do we value them appropriately? How much of what the rest of us do is necessary? Who gets to decide?

As we work at home and online, seeing each other's pets, washing and bookshelves, home-schooling our children between meetings, where do the boundaries lie between the personal and the professional? What even counts as work?

And when work is gone, what happens? Fundamentally, if we cannot find paid work, should our society collectively give us the capacity to survive?

It's no wonder that, in this context, there's been so much discussion around alternative models, from shorter working weeks to Universal Basic Income to worker-owned co-operatives, which give people more control over their work lives. Each of these ideas, in their own way, can flip us out of the extractive model where our life gets boiled down to what we can sell our labour for.

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The time saved on commuting, and the way family life rubbed up against work life during lockdown, triggered conversations about how we might introduce a shorter working week for the same pay. Jacinda Ardern floating the idea certainly made a splash. But while this would absolutely create more space in our lives outside work, and reduce the extent to which our labour value is extracted, it wouldn't fundamentally shift power.

One way of doing that would be through a Universal Basic Income, and there's been an explosion of interest in how that always controversial idea might enable a reinvention of our relationship with work. In a world where lockdowns may come and go for years and secure employment might be a thing of the past, a true, unconditional safety net, giving everyone what they need in order to survive and taxing it back from the wealthy, is a tempting path. What makes it even more attractive is how, by disentangling paid labour from the basic necessities of survival, it removes the extractive nature of work. Work becomes the path each of us chooses in order to participate, to find agency and meaning in our lives.

But perhaps the deepest shift, and surprisingly the least discussed during this crisis, would come from embracing worker- and user-owned co-operatives. The whole jobs discussion in our politics is framed around funding corporations to create jobs for grateful workers. What if, alongside a UBI and a shorter working week, we actually enabled the community to take control of our working lives? Through co-operatives, we get to make the decisions in our workplaces collectively - what we do, for whom, and under what conditions.

Together, these kinds of shifts wouldn't just make life better and easier for the great majority of people. They'd make our society and economy more resilient in the face of the next crisis that hits.

Instead of snapping back to the extractive model of work, it's well past time we built a new, regenerative path.

  • Tim Hollo is executive director of the Green Institute.
This story Is it time to rethink work as we know it? first appeared on The Canberra Times.