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
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:
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?
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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"?
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.
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
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".