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April 1998

Sustainable Occupation beyond the "Economic" Rationale

Reframing "employment", "non-profit-making" and "voluntary" in a context of increasing "unemployment" and failure of "social safety nets"

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There is now official recognition that "full employment", as traditionally conceived, is no longer an option in an increasingly globalized, industrialized society. There is also increasing official recognition that demographic evolution, and aging of populations, will progressively undermine the financial viability of "social safety nets" already contracted and will prevent their implementation elsewhere. It is also recognized that educational systems are producing graduates for whom there is no employment in the disciplines in which they were educated and that the possibility of educating a person "for a job" is increasingly problematic.

These realizations are independent of other concerns relating to the destabilization of societies (non-renewable resources, pollution, global warming, vulnerable international financial system, organized crime, etc). This situation follows from a number of decades of strategies of "international development" -- primarily influenced by an "economic rationale" and, more recently, by the logic of "globalization".

The supporters of the economic rationale justified the dominance of their paradigm by pointing to the "Asian Tigers" but proved significantly unable to foresee the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 to which globalization rendered those countries vulnerable. In the early months of 1998, these supporters engaged in an undignified exercise of blaming each other for the debacle. However they still lay claim to a monopoly on the insight through which such difficulties can be remedied. It is on the basis of their rationale that promises of a "better life" continue to be made -- provided, as always, that austerity is practiced in the shorter term in order to increase productivity. Such promises increasingly lack credibility to those faced with challenges of daily life.

Recognition of the failure of mega-projects has already forced reluctant mainstream attention on such facilities as microcredits and alternative currency systems. With a degree of desperation, it is within this context that emphasis is also being placed on the "employment" opportunities offered by the burgeoning network of "voluntary" and "non-profit" organizations in developing "sustainable community", notably in rural areas. The concern here is with the meaning to be attached to these terms and the nature of the opportunity they represent.

In particular there is a danger that their meaning will tend to be derived primarily from the "economic rationale", in contrast to it, or as a complementary adjunct to it -- as a "face-saving" exercise following the demonstrable challenges to conventional thinking. As with the flourishing of "former resisters" in formerly occupied territories, once liberated, many "economists" enthusiastically exploring such alternatives may turn out to be "turncoats" -- "collaborators" who played a major role in blocking these same alternatives over past decades. Whilst the focus may appear to have changed, it is quite unclear whether the mindset giving rise to such problems has changed or that real lessons have been learnt. The question is whether an attempt should not be made to reframe possibilities in terms which do not derive their significance from a rationale that seems to be in process of both exacerbating the problems of the already impoverished and undermining the quality of life of those it appears to benefit.

What follows is not intended as yet another criticism of economics as a discipline. It is concerned with finding ways to identify and discuss what might be termed sustainable occupation and the contexts within which it might be viable. Under the circumstances, given the conceptual monopoly that economics has acquired, this can only be done by contrast with the manner in which it has focused attention on delivery of tangible products and related services. In so doing the insights of the discipline have not been applied to alternative, possibly subtler, patterns of exchange that may prove to be vital to the sustainability of community in turbulent times.

This arguments of this paper build on those in Being employed by the future: reframing the immediate challenge of sustainable community (1996) and in Sustainable lifestyles and the future of work: learnings from "The Employment Dilemma and the Future of Work" (1996). For the sake of brevity here, hyperlinks are made to points in those documents.


A number of fruitful lines of inquiry and action can be identified. Some are discussed below. One of the challenges in identifying them is that although they may each promise insights and initiatives, and may well be considered of critical importance at this time, there remains the question whether they do not also serve to obscure an underlying challenge that is the real purpose of this paper. That question is how to provide a richer context for a greater variety of sustainable occupations than envisaged through the "economic" paradigm.

The lines of investigation might therefore include:

Sustainable lifestyles and meaningful employment: What varieties of sustainable lifestyle are there and how do they relate to the meaningfulness of an occupation or to the level of remuneration? When is meaningfulness a luxury and when is it fundamental to sustainability?

Category traps and excluded options: By what category traps is current thinking on employment and sustainability unfortunately constrained? Bearing in mind Geoffrey Vickers adage: "A trap is a function of the nature of the trapped", what will the future see as the characteristic constraints on our thinking that inhibited any emergence of more fruitful responses? Might they include the current obsession with "positive", "win-win" initiatives based on a recognition of "common ground" and a dysfunctional inability to deal with disagreement? What are the unasked questions thay might give rise to breakthroughs towards sustainable occupation? How are such questions suppressed and forgotten?

Enabling community and sustaining social experiments: It is useful to recognize the degree to which social experiment is actively or tacitly inhibited, whether by regulations, fiscal or social security constraints, or through moral or ethical considerations. Whilst these may well be laudable in many circumstances, the question is whether they are appropriate when they directly inhibit the search for sustainable occupation. Worthy principles can be inappropriately applied in turbulent situations such as to inhibit responses to the disadvantaged (eg prohibition of soup kitchens unless they fulfill standards of hygiene appropriate to restaurants). Fortunately science and business has a healthy approach to the failure of experiments. This pragmatism should be extended to social experiments which should be assisted as is frequently done for business.

Job creation vs. Job location: An unhealthy context has been established that encourages individuals to "find a job" created by organizations that are expected to "create jobs". There is a strong case for exploring whether other attitudes are not also possible, and even more appropriate. Why is it that so little emphasis is placed on enabling people to discover how to create sustainable occupations for themselves -- possibly with their peers, friends or families? To what extent are people educated to create sustainable occupations for themselves rather than to depend upon "job creation" by others? Who is concerned with these skills and their improvement?

Substitution for monetary employment: How is it that an "occupation" has been locked into the necessity of monetary remuneration? Parents even proudly pay their children to perform household tasks "to teach them the realities of life". There is every indication that income gaps are increasing. In this sense economic rationalism could be seen as the greatest pyramid selling scam that history has every seen implemented. Aside from the development of alternative, possibly non-monetary, systems of exchange, there is the question of how other kinds of "products", "transactions" and "occupations" can be substituted for those that people are increasingly unable to purchase or engage in -- especially when these alternatives can actually carry a sense of higher quality of life. It is ironic, for example, that primitive craft goods, like candles, are increasingly preferred substitutes for costly alternative forms of lighting. It is encouraging that reversion to the non-monetarized system is acknowledged by economists, and that some advantages are recognized.

Engagement: the vital interface? What makes for personal engagement in an occupation? It is ironic that people may be "engaged" by an employer without any attention as to whether the work "engages" those so occupied. For those unable to engage in the material "economy" for lack of jobs, it is important to explore other possibilities of psychic engagement in other processes of social life. In what ways do people then derive "psychic income" and in what ways and to what degree can this subsitute for monetary income? Whilst within the economic rationale this may imply an alternative to "work", for those so engaged this may involve an equal amount of work, whether physical or otherwise. It is the nature of the quality of engagement that is the issue.

Localization vs. Globalization: There is every indication that the process of globalization will continue to create local joblessness in the monetary economy with measureable efficiency -- despite hopes to the contrary. Whilst legally distinct "local" productive systems increase in efficiency through exporting inefficiencies into the wider "global" social system, the latter will continue to accumulate people increasingly unsupported by any viable social safety net. The question is whether the countervailing trend to economic globalization will engender radical social localization in new patterns of community and social relationships -- as suggested by some religious movements, for example. Whereas globalization assumes that satisfiers will be imported as readily from around the world, localization will focus on satisfiers deriving from the immediate environment -- however this is to be understood and cultivated. How people engage sustainably in local occupations within new non-economic realities are then the questions to be explored. It may prove to be the essence of sustainable community.

Recognition of concrete possibilities vs improbable aspirations: There is increasing scepticism regarding excessively optimistic "global plans" that fail to take into account the appalling record of delivery systems implemented through conventional policy-making (eg "Health for All by the Year 2000", or its national equivalents). Such promises are made without any guarantees and seldom involve any real contractual commitment whatsover, as is becoming clear with regard to state pensions. Legislation favouring "globalization" has been undertaken with a similar degree of irresponsibility and arrogance, as the Asian financial crisis has illustrated. The costs and surprises associated with the "year 2000" computer problem are another illustration. The question is how should people respond to systems based on unrealistic promises when they have to deal with the concrete realities of the sustainability of their occupations.

New understanding of wealth: There is an acknowledged need to acquire a new understanding of wealth. How this wealth is to be related to a monetary system governed by an economic rationale is another matter. There is a strong case for exploring other, possibly complementary, understandings of wealth directly related to the sustainability of occupations in sustainable communities offering a recognizable quality of life. What is the wealth of a community? What is valuable to an individual in that community? How is such wealth related to "values"?

New understanding of work: How is it that the economic system has acquired a curious monopoly on "work"? What kinds of work are unrecognized by the economic system? Is quality of life associated more closely with the kinds of work recognized by the economic system or unrecognized by it? Is there not a strong case for recognizing occupations independently of whether they are remunerated or essential to a productive economy? A sustainable occupation from the individual's perspective, may have very little to do with an economic system. In a real sense, it is the monetary economy which has invaded traditional sustainable comunities, rendered them unsustainable, proceeded to claim that they were unsustainable in the first place -- and then desperately engaged in an investigation of how to make communities sustainable.This process continues with the invasive commercialization of family and community life -- encouraged by the possibility of taxing such transactions. The question is whether and how it can be reversed. Thinking concering a multi-layered system of work is a step towards an answer.

New understanding of employment: It has been accepted that current economic theory is unable to provide a conceptual framework for full employment -- or at least to provide any guarantees of its deliverability. A compromise is therefore sought between efforts to maintain social welfare systems and dismantling such systems to drive people to "find a job" -- with little thought to whether the financial remuneration are sufficient. Unfortunately "new thinking" on these matters tends to be extremely limited in scope, as illustrated by the UK Labour government major initiative in April 1998. The possibility of redefining work and employment, in order to broaden the pattern of engagement and rewards, is not considered. The question is not whether an individual is "employed" or "productive". Rather it is how to articulate the relationship between what they are able (or choose) to do and the the monetarized economy. In this sense people are always "employed" and "productive", it is how what they do can be honoured and integrated as a sustainable occupation into a viable, broader framewxork -- with monetary and non-monetary dimensions -- that is the issue.

Work and identity: As with the nature of "engagement", a sustainable occupation is necessarily one that in some way sustains a sense of identity. With the changing nature of what is understood to be "work" and "employment", insufficient attention is being devoted to the way in which this sustainis or undermines a sense of identity. Clearly people may seek identity-sustaining roles in non-economic occupations, such as voluntatry activity. The question is whether these issues are being explored simply to ensured a "satisfied workforce" or from a broader perspective that takes account of the increasing numbers excluded from the "workforce" recognizedf by the economic rationale.

Enabling the emergence of solutions

The struggle around the issues and possibilities identified above is certain to continue. For many it is engaging in the struggle that ensures their status in the current system -- notably in the case of many professional economists. Defining "sustainable community" has now become a source of income for conceptual carpetbaggers. By contrast, for the disadvantaged, awaiting clarity on these issues is a luxury they cannot afford. People have only a limited capacity to be nourished and sheltered by theories and promises alone. It is highly questionable whether the increasing efficiencies required of businesses in increasingly competitive markets can increase the quality of life of the average person rather than continue to erode it.

At this point any proposed global "solution" is itself questionable and subject to challenge. Rather than require proven solutions, when theory and practice is wanting, another approach could well be taken. A strong case can be made for facilitating local social experiment by those who believe in any particular solution and want to act on that belief -- notably by engaging their own resources.

As noted earlier, careful attention should be given to what is inhibiting social experiment -- just as such attention has been given to "small business programmes". The issue is not the nature of the experiment, but rather the desire of groups of people to engage in experiment at the local level. It is this commitment that reflects a level of "engagement" vital to sustainable occupation and the creation of sustainable community.

Governments have justified the creation of "free trade zones" from which inhibiting regulations have been removed. Could the same not be done for social experiments -- possibly even on islands, in isolated areas, or with traditional rural communities? Attention needs to be given to the minimum constraints and the nature of any facilitating legislation. But it is for groups of people to pursue their understanding of what might ensure sustainable community for them. The result might be a great range of communities of many different styles.

How people contract into such initiatives and engage or limit their responsibilities would be a matter of concern in each case. There would be many failures -- as is considered normal and acceptable with scientific experiments and new business initiatives. These should not be used to condemn social experiment itself, as has been so frequently done in the past. It is acceptable that people should "risk al"l and "be ruined" in business. It is is considered dangerous that people should "be ruined" by committing to a social experiment. The reasons for these contrating perspectives by those who hold them should be carefully examined.

Current discussion of "voluntary" and "non-profit" organizations, as well as of "intentional communities", is an indication of the natural interest in such opportunity. Many of these initiatives could be usefully reframed as social experiments. The question is whether they could be allowed and encouraged to offer greater opportunities. In doing so, can they discover ways of offering sustainable occupations? Many of them already see their role as providing social safety nets for their members or for the disadvantaged in their communities.

The point is that it is for them to engage in discovering "solutions" that economic and other theorists have proved unable to offer or guarantee. The message is "if government cannot provide long-term sustenance, at least allow people to experiment with possibilities that they see as offering some hope". The warning is "those opposing or inhibiting such experiments need to guarantee the solutions they advocate and to address the needs of those suffering in any transitional period they require".


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