Sustainable Lifestyles and the Future of Work
Learnings from "The Employment Dilemma and the Future of Work"
- / -
Comment on 1996 draft report to the Club of Rome by Orio Giarini and Patrick
Recognition of concrete possibilities vs. aspirations
New understanding of wealth
New understanding of work
New understanding of employment
Globalization as global opportunity?
Developing non-monetarized activities
Work and identity
Multi-layer system of work
"Unemployment begins in the minds of men, and it is in the minds of men
that sustainable lifestyles must be constructed"
(adaptation of a key phrase in the constitution of Unesco)
The report starts with the comment: "the future of work and the employment
dilemmas are some of the most pressing issues that the world has to face".
The report "aims at disclosing some of the weaknesses and shortcomings
of present concepts, proposing a different, alternative view of present
and future economic activities that will enable us to meet today's and
tomorrow's challenges with more adequate insight. The main objective is
not to provide final answers that in an ideal world might satisfy everyone
under all circumstances. We rather wish to provoke and stimulate economic
thinking in a new direction by adopting a different, alternative point
of view that will reveal previously hidden aspects opening the path for
new approaches and more satisfactory solutions" (p. 9)
The question which will be asked is whether the report has adopted a
broad enough framework in "disclosing the weaknesses and shortcomings of
present concepts". It is possible that fruitful approaches to the dilemmas
of employment lie outside efforts to understand "present and future economic
activities". Whilst it may be useful to "stimulate economic thinking in
new directions", it is unclear whether economists are necessarily equipped
to respond to the concrete challenge following such stimulation. The "previously
hidden aspects" may at present lie openly in the territory of other disciplines
(with their own limitations) who themselves have difficulty in focusing
their skills in response to these same challenges.
The report is written under a banner of useful humility provided by
Francis Bacon: "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts;
but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties".
The question is whether the report has locked itself into certainties based
on the primacy of economic thinking concerning response to the challenges
of employment. This primacy can be usefully doubted.
Recognition of concrete possibilities vs. aspirations
The report is realistic in seeking to avoid providing "final answers
that in an ideal world might satisfy everyone under all circumstances".
The question is whether its proposals will satisfy sufficient people under
sufficient circumstances in time to avoid the severe social disruption
predicted by many observers if trends continue as at present. Some would
also ask which people it is appropriate for the report to seek to satisfy.
The international community now has a very poor track record in delivering
on the promises built into a variety of international plans of action ("Health
for All by the Year 2000, Elimination of Hunger within a Generation, etc).
These plans increasingly arouse cynicism and are coming to be recognized
as aspirations rather than strategiesoffering any real hope of implementation.
The recent FAO conference on hunger has illustrated and reinforced this
The question is whether the report offers possibilities of immediate
implementation in response to the challenges it addresses, rather than
deferring responses to people in distressed situations -- whilst economists
redirect their thinking to legitimate more appropriate government policies
some time in the future.
New understanding of wealth
The report calls for a "profound and far-reaching renewal of economic
thinking, a discipline whose fundamental purpose is the better utilization
of resources for the creation of wealth" (p. 13). Further, it is "only
through a thorough understanding of what the process of wealth creation
in today's world entails that an updated definition of the notion of productive
work can be arrived at" (p. 13). This is fine, although equivalent attention
could usefully be given to the manner in which poverty is created -- both
in its material and, more interestingly, in its immaterial sense.
But then the report states that the "notion of employment itself, i.e.
remunerated work, is only a part, albeit an important part, of what must
be understood by 'productive activities'" (p. 13). This statement traps
the report in two ways:
"Employment" is tied to remuneration, so that by definition all those
who are not remunerated are "unemployed" and vulnerable to the stigma and
loss of self-esteem associated with that term.
An initial orientation is given to "productive activities" which may
prove fatal to any efforts to reach an understanding of the framework appropriate
to transcending the dilemmas of employment.
The report stresses that the "employment dilemma is a concept which
on the one hand reflects the enormous potential for developing productive
activities we require to enhance the wealth of nations and the people the
world over, and on the other, the contradictions arising from an inadequate
understanding of the means whereby to produce and benefit from such wealth
and potential." (p. 13). And then "it is our production, in the widest
sense, not just the one linked to industrial processes of creating material
goods, that defines ourselves; we are what we produce" (p. 14). The question
is what might some important constituencies see as excluded from the report's
understanding of "wealth" and the "the widest sense" -- and as such vital
to effective response to the dilemmas.
The report makes significant efforts to venture into areas that are
problematic for economists. In stressing the role of "human capital" as
"the central production factor in any economic theory", it acknowledges
that the return on investment in such capital "is also related to the superior
subjective feeling of intellectual well-being, confidence, social recognition,
etc" (p. 14). But even this will be challenged for failing to include the
emotional and affective well-being so vital to any sense of quality of
life, whether as lived or as marketed so explicitly by the fashion and
Despite aspiring to such new sensitivity, the fundamental flaw of the
report might be said to be the need to prove to economists and industrialists
that these dimensions are important to increasing the wealth of nations
-- when the real challenge is to provide the people who are liable to disrupt
the system with means to reinforce thesedimensions in their own lives.
Does the report reflect the need and the means to increase the wealth and
value of people's lives? The employment dilemma is cast unfortunately into
a dilemma for those who have defined the economic paradigm (effectively
to ensure increasing unemployment) -- and not in terms of reframing the
dilemma for those most imperilled by the vagaries and inadequacies of such
New understanding of work
For whom?: The report provides a useful, and extensive, summary
of the evolution of notions of work in relation to economic theory -- which
could be seen as a review of what has as yet failed to deliver full employment.
However, despite acknowledging the value of "superior subjective feeling
of well-being", it demonstrates relatively little ability to address the
issue from the perspective of the person engaged, or not engaged, in "work"
according to different definitions. It is this person who, consequently,
then becomes defined as "employed" or "unemployed" and is presented (by
the prevailing economic theory) with the challenge of "finding a job",
"having a job created for them", or "creating a job".
It needs to be recognized that in an important sense it is such people
who are the ultimate "consumers" of the theories produced by economists,
whatever the delivery system through government or industry policies. As
in any marketing situation, the question is to what degree the producers
of such theories, or their intermediary distributors, are sensitive to
the needs of the consumers. It might be argued that such consumers have
legitimate reason to be dissatisfied by an environment in which "more people
are unemployed in industrialized countries than at any time before" and
when there is every prospect of such numbers increasing (p. 110). As the
report notes, this "reflects both human distress and economic inefficiency
and undermines social cohesion and confidence in market mechanisms and
democratic institutions" (p. 110).
Constraints on definition of work: The report rightly points
out that "the mind-set of the Industrial Revolution has totally excluded
from the notion of productive employment for global wealth [the role of]
non-remunerated and self-production-consumption activities" (p. 111). But
it is weak in its efforts to broaden the definition of "productive work"
and to draw policy conclusions from this.
It might be asked, for example, whether a professional meeting of economists,
present in their personal capacity, constitutes work. The same might even
be asked of a meeting of members of the Club of Rome! If such phenomena
are to be considered work, how are they to be understood as productive?
The same questions can be raised with respect to local community organizations.
Which forms of social activity are to be labelled "unproductive"?
It is unfortunate that productive "work" has been artificially limited
to a selection of activities in which some humans engage. This is a tiny
subset of those which are defined as work by thermodynamics in relation
to the planet as a whole. It is ironic that human, financially remunerated
"work" takes place within a very broad context of non-monetarized transactions
which sustain the economically defined working environment. Some aspects
of this broader environment currently constitute significant challenges
to economic thinking, including the value to be placed on the "work" done:
by unpaid creative or caring people; in the household; by non-human species,
in maintaining the ecological system (trees, animals, etc) and in developing
food products through biological processes (for which man may seek to develop
substitutes); and in natural inorganic systems (notably that done by water
-- from which hydro-power may be drawn). This broader contextraises questions
concerning how a tree is to be appropriately valued, when the work it does
in the ecosystem is not acknowledged (eg in relation to air purification).
The extent of such work only becomes apparent, and valued, when man-made
systems must be introduced to compensate for their absence.
New understanding of employment
Basic compromise: The report effectively accepts the inability
of current economic theory to provide a conceptual framework for full employment
-- or at least to provide any guarantees of its deliverability. It rightly
points to the need to seek a compromise between:
the will to maintain social welfare systems by in some way providing a
guaranteed income (to compensate for the undeliverability of full employment)
the dismantling of such systems in such a way that people will be driven
to find a job at whatever remuneration is then possible.
A "third option", namely redefining work and employment, in order to broaden
the pattern of engagement and rewards, is not considered.
Despite some acknowledgement of the role of non-monetarized activity,
the report remains locked into the dilemmas of resolving the issues by
monetary means for which no implementable solution appears viable --nor
does any solution offer guarantees for the immediate relief of those in
distress. A creative approach to the situation calls for a checklist of
excluded options, and the reasons for which they are excluded. The focus
of the report is on options locked into the existing mind-set that it tentatively
Social policy responses: The policy responses to unemployment
are distinguished in the report as:
mobilizing labour supply, whether through training or subsidizing employment
of the hard-to-employ, or through subsidizing start-ups;
developing employment-related skills through training and education;
promotion of a spirit of active search to enhance fruitful contact between
job seekers and potential employers;
direct creation of jobs, either involving temporary work, or in some cases
regular jobs in public sector or non-profit organizations.
Unfortunately the report is not sufficiently realistic about the increasing
credibility gap associated with the hype with which such measures are launched
and promoted in comparison with the reality, as implemented in practice,
of their limited impact on increasing unemployment. It is the conclusions
to be drawn for future policy-making from this "deliverability gap" which
merit much more attention.
Flawed definition: The problem lies with the definition of productive
work and employment. The narrow definitions currently favoured by economists
must necessarily define increasingly large numbers of people as unemployed
and not engaged in productive work. Within this logic,the only response
is to find means of relieving their disadvantage in terms of the monetarized
economy. The options for this are limited within that logic -- and must
necessarily perpetuate an increasing class of impoverished people, and
the "moral hazard" associated with unemployment benefits (p. 114).
The report usefully stresses that there is a major contradiction in
the current system which "started out to produce more in order to increase
wealth, could achieve exactly the opposite, producing more scarcities.
Goods [like fresh water] that become scarce have less value in terms of
real wealth than when they are in virtually unlimited supply. Our economic
system, however, does not account for this, because only priced goods have
an economic value. Until a good becomes scarce and therefore priced, its
real value is not recognized and an original amount or stock is not accounted
for" (p. 120).
What is unfortunate is the limited attention by the report to radical
options for broadening the definition of productive work and employment,
as an acknowledgement of activities through which people sustain their
"superior subjective feeling of intellectual well-being, confidence, social
recognition, etc" (p. 14) -- namely their sense of quality of life.
Non-monetarized activities: The report does however focus (p.
127) on two forms of non-monetarized human activities:
Excluded forms of work:
based on implicit exchange values, as is typical of benevolent and voluntary
work, including caring and domestic duties (tentatively estimated at $16
trillion, namely 70% of monetarized activities). These are called "monetarized
but non-monetized" by the report, since monetary value could be attached
with no implicit exchange value reference, as is typical of self-education
and efforts to shift the burden of work to the customer or consumer (as
in self-service situations). These are "non-monetarized" in the
stricter since of the term.
However, as examples of "work" which would
even, in all probability, be excluded from the second category, consider:
that associated with self-development in any spiritual sense; a life of
prayer or meditation; various forms of creativity and self-expression,
including physical exercise. These might be considered subjective forms
of "work" which contribute most directly to the above-mentioned "superior
subjective feeling of intellectual well-being, confidence, social recognition,
etc" (p. 14). It would be valuable to have a checklist of human activities
that are excluded from any convenient definition of "work" (and possibly
starting with breast-feeding, sexual intercourse and conversation!).
Occupational ecosystem: Although efforts to articulate categories
of occupation have reached a high level of detail for statistical purposes,
no effort has been made to demonstrate how such occupations weave together
into a sustainable ecosystem of mutually dependent initiatives. The real
wealth of society could be considered as intimately associated with the
richness of the pattern of connections within any such system -- whether
monetarized or not. Partial recognition of this may be seen in the weakness
attributed to Eastern European societies at this time -- due to the absence
or immaturity of their "civil society". How the economic system meshes
with this social system is a matter of continuing exploration.
Dematerialization of products: What "wealth" is engendered in
societies, communities or families where the emphasis is on quality oflife,
cultural expression, and personal and community development?
The report approaches such issues through the debate over the "dematerialization
of products". Unfortunately it places the emphasis on justifying the use
of the immaterial assets (in the form of knowledge and culture) "that are
needed to put material tools to their best use" (p. 136). It excludes the
possibility of any modern economy based on "immaterial goods". This ensures
that those who lack material tools and goods are prematurely defined as
unable to put immaterial assets to any "productive" use. The reaction of
Buddhists whose lives are dedicated to the "accumulation of merit" would
be of interest on this point. The reaction of academics and socialites
dedicated to (and rewarded by) the accumulation of status and recognition
would also be of value.
Developing countries: In the case of developing countries, the
stress placed on severing the "historically tight bond between money and
the wealth and welfare of people" (p. 151) is valuable, as well as the
emphasis on the "next step now has to be to integrate the non-monetized
and non-monetarized contributions [as distinguished above] into a more
general framework" (p. 151). It is argued that the non-monetarized parts
"here more than anywhere else contribute to the wealth and welfare of people"
(p. 151). But the arguments for this could as well be applied to those
segments of industrialized societies that have effectively become "developing
societies" in the worst sense of the term -- and are liable to become more
so in the future.
In developing countries, the report makes the valuable point that since
"the so-called productive, because monetarized, activities may be parasitic
on other non-monetarized work, such as domestic services, child care, etc.,
it is extremely important, especially for the developing regions of the
world who have still a larger proportion of such activities prevalent in
their economy, to take an integrated view of their future development.
People in developing countries will only be better off in real terms, if
the development of more monetarized work does not destroy more valuable,
but in monetary terms, unrated activities that add to the real, but not
the monetary wealth, of the society" (p. 152). The learnings for industrialized
countries, from developing countries in this respect are usefully emphasized
-- where some 75% of workers are active in both the formal and the informal
sectors (p. 153).
Globalization as global opportunity?
The report places faith in the globalization process to respond to the
challenge of unemployment. "There is a message of hope in the present situation
in the Service Economy which far outweighs the theory of comparative advantage.
There now exists a vested interest for all producers to establish efficient
local utilization systems...Thus we discover, in an economic sense also,
a great general interest that all can share, in that the poorer become
richer because they are the terrain which new markets can develop on the
basis of their ability to use prosumers and properly manage available systems"
Unfortunately for many this is only a statement of faith. It is unclear,
following extensive downsizing, what the next transformations in large
corporations must be once "lean management" no longer guarantees competitivity.
What happens "after lean"?
It needs to be recognized that endeavouring to market this new religion
in terms of a promised payoff sometime in the future faces considerable
challenge from the increasing numbers who do not see themselves as benefitting
from this process, now or in the more distant future.Focusing on those
who will benefit is not enough, and does not respond to the essence of
the employment dilemma.
The report fails to recognize that economists have a track record of
proposing new theories offering a payoff sometime. As with the promises
of religions, these may persuade and placate some people some of the time,
some people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.
It is the unpersuaded and unplacated who are on the increase.
In this sense the report indicates its weakness in limiting its comment
on this to: "Delicate negotiation and compromise will be needed to strike
a balance between legitimate concerns about labour rights and practices
and purely protectionist considerations" (p. 161). Who is expected to do
the compromising, and will they be prepared to do so?
Developing non-monetarized activities
In response to the challenges implicit in its argument to this point,
the report endeavours to reframe the challenge in a very useful way. It
acknowledges an increasing reversion to the non-monetarized system, and
makes the point that: "the efficiency level of monetary expansion and of
the use made of money is not infinite. In a sense the encouragement of
self-productive activities as a means of reducing production costs can
be seen as an indication of the limits of the efficiency of the monetary
system" (p. 162). It argues:
Either "we stick with the notion that the only viable employment system
is a monetarized one and as a consequence believe ourselves to be faced
with an unsolvable unemployment problem",
Or "we begin to accept the notion that wealth today is created in an integrated
and interdependent way by the monetarized and the non-monetarized systems
combined, and must therefore draw certain inevitable conclusions from that
assumption" (p. 162).
The report considers that "the first option leads us to a negative conclusion:
a pessimistic view of the future of unemployment on the one hand and, on
the other, the idea that our capacity for creating wealth is diminishing"
(p. 163). Whereas the second option, "based on a more optimistic view of
the future, as also on a more realistic assessment of what in reality is
already actually happening" sees non-remunerated and self-production options
as increasingly crucial.
A principal reservation about these valuable points is the continuing
assumption in the report that employment, whatever its future form, must
necessarily be primarily at the service of a larger economy to which it
must continue to justify itself proving itself to be productive through
competitive mechanisms. There is a marked tendency to value that wealth
that is most readily apparent at the collective, and typically, national
However, it is quite possible that a degree of "delinking" may be more
appropriate to the extent that, where stressed global distribution systems
fail, "employment" may usefully be associated with the smallest local communities,
and above all to the individual. The "work" involved may be then far from
"efficient" according to external criteria. The "products" of this work
may themselves be far from tangible. How such micro-systems need to develop
calls for attention. For it is at this level that safeguards against "unemployment"
and social insecurity can be most effectively built. It is at this level
that "deliverability" is most crucial.
Work and identity
The authors assert that "We are much more what we produce than what
we consume" (p. 164). They draw attention to the degree to which many identify
strongly with their jobs or their profession -- increasing the psychological
implications of redundancy. But they usefully point to the extent to which
people engage in other kinds of activity, notably in the form of voluntary
work, which are of equivalent, if not greater, importance psychologically.
"Even if these activities do not contribute directly to the monetized part
of the economy, they are a valuable element that deserves recognition since
they also add to the wealth and the welfare of people" (p. 162).
It usefully questions the policy conclusion that the key to the employment
dilemma is simply a question of reducing working hours in remunerated employment.
"this would be totally to ignore the fact that it behooves us to ensure,
or at least to attempt to ensure, that all human beings perform appropriate
productive activities to their material and moral satisfaction" (p. 165)
"it is obvious that the number of activities unrelated to remunerated
employment has increased enormously" (p. 165)
The authors stress: "An important task in the coming decades for economists
and entrepreneurs...will be to ascertain to what extent important activities
necessary for the individual and society, when they fall out of the market
because they become 'too expensive', are recaptured by self-production
and voluntary activities. In other words, remunerated employment might
diminish in relative terms, but this could not necessarily be said of productive
activities" (p. 165).
Unfortunately the report fails to explore further the implications of
such recognition for any reframing of the employment/work issue. The key
issue is, however, how "non-remunerated" work is to be recognized in such
a way that it compensates fully for the loss of monetary rewards, and may
even come to be valued more than monetary rewards. Trends in this direction
are to be seen in the, often abusive, use of "perks" and honours. But these
merely serve to indicate that some substitution is possible. Such examples
do not address the following situations, each more anguishing than the
some people may choose voluntarily to be engaged full-time at "non-economic"
salaries, but their psychological and social challenges in relation to
those with "competitive" salaries can be very problematic, especially since
little effort is made to offer them fiscal or other compensation. This
is typical of those with a career in non-profit organizations who may be
under continuing pressure to "rejoin" by exposure to the disadvantages
they experience and devaluation of any perceived advantages;
whilst people with alternative sources of monetary income may engage to
some degree in voluntary work, or may be engaged full-time at "non-economic"
salaries, how are they to handle the psychological and social challenges
of the interface with the monetarized economy and its reward system ?
Again these may be exposed to strong pressures to "rejoin" the monetary
for those lacking any adequate alternative sources of monetary income,
what organization of the community will enable people to survive (and thrive)
-- even if they receive what amounts to a high "psychic income" through
other reward systems? How are non-monetary transactions, however highly
valued, to ensure the basic needs of those essentially dependent upon them?
The report fails to raise the issue, as a creative possibility, that "downshifting"
might be deliberately encouraged -- provided appropriate substitution of
non-monetary rewards could be achieved in a meaningful, sustainable manner.
The question is how to substitute quality-of-life for dependence on money
-- reversing the tendency to force consumers up market by progressive conversion
of luxuries into necessities.
Multi-layer system of work
The recommendation of the report is for a three-layer approach to work:
"social and individual ingenuity combined should aim to provide every human
being with a minimum of remunerated productive activity", seemingly as
a result of government intervention
"remunerated work above or instead of the first layer", notably in the
case of those capable of generating their own sources of income, and rendering
any form of first layer government intervention unnecessary.
"self-production and non-remunerated voluntary activities" as "a key condition
for the functioning and development of the monetarized system" (p. 178).
Whilst these points contain much of value, the weakness of the approach
as outlined lies in the failure to address the question of deliverability
of any such system -- for which societies have a poor track record, further
severely undermined by corruption of various forms. This weakness is evident
in the unexplored implications of the statement: "every single individual
in society, capable of doing so, be given adequate opportunities to develop
productive activities" (p. 178). Addressing the implementation issues requires
a more radical approach to understanding of the psychology of productive
As it stands the report remains trapped in a mind-set in which "productive",
"work" and "employment" are all defined externally. Whilst this is true
to an extent, it is how these are experienced by the individual concerned,
and the interface between society's definition and that of the individual,
which are the basis for a sustainable development, community and lifestyle
-- or the source of chaotic social disruption. The report recognizes this
through statements such as: "Individuals would have the freedom and even
the stimulus to define themselves, in terms of their own image and of society,
for activities which they deploy beyond their first level of activity"
(p. 180). However the implications are not explored.
But while the report should be lauded for such statements as "It is
imperative therefore that social policy consider people as human beings
deserving of opportunities to 'produce themselves'" (p. 179); the question
is not whether an individual is "employed" or "productive". The question
is rather how to articulate the relationship between what they are able
(or choose) to do and the monetarized economy. In this sense people are
always "employed" and "productive", it is how what they do can be honoured
and integrated into a viable, broader framework -- with monetary and non-monetary
dimensions -- that is the issue.
By shifting the emphasis back to the non-monetarized system, which is
the core message of the report, a great service is preformed -- notably
through such statements as:
"the connections between the monetarized and the non-monetarized economies
have to be better understood and developed: indeed, many initiatives, without
fully acknowledging this fact, have already incorporated something of this
approach" (p. 184)
"We would urge that serious consideration be given to non-monetarized activities,
ie those performed by people for themselves and which as such are not subject
to a system of exchange" (p. 185)
"many benevolent activities, which avoid paying others for work, can be
encouraged even through the normal development of society" (p. 185)
"A key issue for policy design will be the quantification of the increase
in wealth produced by self-production and the non-monetized activities.
The recognition of this increase in a more adequate economic theory and
its evaluation through proper indicators will be essential" (p. 185).
The report is trapped in a "people work for society" framework, when a
"people work in society" framework would evoke new policy opportunities.
The report, because its audience is primarily those persuaded by the logic
of economics, is timid in challenging its own assumptions about more variegated
understandings of work:
Does a 6-hour per day regime of prayer constitute "work", as would be recognized
in some cultures?
Does a bee "work", as suggested by the term "worker" bee?
Does a tree "work", as recognized by the weight of water lifted?
Does a prisoner, a slave or a plough-horse "work", given the absence of
Is the difficulty in attributing value to a tree of a similar kind to that
of attributing it to a slave? And, in that sense, to what extent is it
useful to explore the ways in which contemporary society is dependent on
un-valued "workers" -- are trees and cattle effectively "slaves"?
The report fails to determine the existence or possibility of broader
or alternative understandings of "work" and "employment", the constituencies
or cultures subscribing to them in some measure, and the challenges implicit
in them for more conventional audiences. In this respect the report makes
itself vulnerable to criticism at the service of interests that have themselves
little real hope to offer.
The weakness of this approach lies in the inability of new thinking
on the part of economists to deliver "employment" and "wealth creation"
potential to increasingly significant segments of the population -- through
the kinds of plans and strategies that emerge from the current paradigm.
It is assumed that globalization will ensure such delivery whereas there
is every indication that it will be as successful in "delivering unemployment"
to the many as it is in delivering employment to the few.
Faced with such challenges, it is "paradigm leaps" that are called for,
not "paradigm hops"! Better still would be development of an ability to
coordinate "walking" continually forward rather than having to depend on
occasional, spasmodic leaps. It should be noted that the "leap" metaphor
constitutes a simplistic avoidance of the coordination required in strategies
implicit in the "walking" metaphor.