Economic globalisation and technological change are irrevocably reshaping the nature of work: we are in the throes of a post-industrial revolution. Industrialised societies must no longer perpetuate the myth that secure adequately-waged employment is available to all who want it. The effect of this myth is to manufacture consent for deserting and stigmatising those most in need, and dangerously postpone the effective social action needed to steer global change in positive directions.
In the present context of jobless growth, it is the growing polarisation of industrialised societies -- into an impoverished, "redundant", deskilled large minority and a small, affluent technical-professional elite -- that must be faced and squarely dealt with by decision makers. Who's in the middle? The increasingly "anxious class" flagged by US Labor Secretary Robert Reich in 1992 (The Work of Nations)
Without decisive and innovative action, this downward spiral will exact an even heavier toll than at present. It will be felt not just in reduced purchasing power and material standard of living ... but also, more cruelly, in eroded self-esteem, family breakdown, rising crime rates and all of the other well-documented consequences of unemployment and downward mobility.
How can we best respond to these new realities? Justice dictates that we should not continue to penalise and stigmatise people who cannot find secure, living-wage work, since there is not enough of it to go around. There is plenty of good work that needs doing -- parenting our young, protecting and restoring the environment, providing companionship for the elderly, for example -- but a fixation on the private sector's bottom line prevents society from paying people adequately to do this needed work. And as the cliche now has it, many of us are overworked while others have no paying job at all.
The message here seems clear: we must begin seriously to examine how to implement other mechanisms for allocating work and distributing income. These include a shorter work week, job sharing, earlier retirement, 'sabbatical leaves' and innovative mixes of these ideas. But these ways of sharing work can be viewed as only one component in a strategy to adapt to growing structural unemployment. And no strategy is likely to be successful in equitably addressing the new problems of income distribution without the introduction of some form of adequate and secure guaranteed basic income.
Certainly there have been arguments in favour of progressive versions of the guaranteed basic income idea. The need to adequately compensate work vital to the well-being of communities, such as child and elder care, is one. Another is that current productivity and prosperity in the private sector owes much to social investment (taxpayers' money) over time in health, education, law and order, R&D, and infrastructure. In this view, a secure basic income is a just means to underpin the peaceful transition to a new era of less traditional, less secure 'employment'.
There have also been vehement denunciations of any program to guarantee income on the grounds that such income would inevitably be meagre, perhaps less than welfare, and that any type of 'workfare' would simply subsidise bad wages or institutionalise unemployment. Always raised as well is the spectre of free riders.
INVESTING IN PEOPLE
What we need now is a well-designed research effort, building on existing Canadian, British and European models, that identifies economically and socially feasible basic-income alternatives. As Rifkin suggests in The End of Work (1995), basic income paid out through non-profits for socially-useful work could be financed by streamlining the welfare bureaucracy, and discontinuing expensive subsidies to corporations.
A substantial part of the needed revenue could also be derived from a small tax on the trillions of dollars of unproductive global speculation conducted electronically every 24 hours (the Tobin tax).
It is clear that we are entering a new historical era. The major challenge is to enable people to play a richer variety of roles in a society that has less need for 'employees' and more for parents, artists, inventors, craftsworkers, environmental stewards, community caretakers, and many other self-motivated makers and doers.
The sooner we design a fair and feasible way to institute basic economic security for all, the sooner we can address that challenge, and the more surely we will be back on course creating the kind of society we want to sustain.
Source -- Canada Watch (Sept.-Oct 1996), a York University publication. and Futurework email list conference January 1997
Sally Lerner is a co-ordinator of the Futurework email list conference. She is also teaches environmental studies at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
Futurework internet bookmark : http://csf.colorado.edu/futurework/
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