UNDERCURRENTS WORK PATTERNS
The Cinderella Economy We are going to need something more than wishful thinking to avoid the calamities that lie ahead. Working less and restoring the value of human labour could be the answer, says sustainability professor Tim Jackson
Society is faced with a profound dilemma. To refrain from growth is to risk economic and social collapse. To pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecological systems on which we depend for survival.
For the most part, this dilemma goes entirely unrecognised. When reality starts to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple’ growth from its material impacts and continue to do so even as the economy continues to grow indefinitely. The green economy – as this idea is often called – was all the rage at Rio in June.
The reasons for such blind utopianism are easy enough to find. The modern economy is structurally reliant on growth for its stability. When growth falters, as it has done recently, politicians panic. Businesses struggle to survive. People lose their jobs and sometimes their homes. A spiral of recession looms. Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.
But shooting the messenger won’t evade the dilemma. With oil prices clinging tenaciously to the onceinconceivable US$100 a barrel mark, and carbon emissions rising faster than ever before, we need something more than wishful thinking to avert the calamities ahead. The policy mantra ‘growth equals jobs’ is frankly unhelpful when growth itself is not just unlikely but sometimes positively unpalatable. More to the point, this mantra turns out to be false in general. The relationship between growth and jobs isn’t straightforward at all; it’s mediated by something called labour productivity: the amount of output delivered (on average) by each hour of work in the economy. When labour productivity stays constant, then, sure, an increase in output leads to an increase in employment. But if labour productivity increases faster
Achieving a green economy may be less to do with ‘sustained growth’ and more to do with building an economy of care, craft and culture than output does, then unemployment can rise even with a rise in the GDP: it’s quite possible for this to lead to ‘jobless growth’. Conversely, of course, if labour productivity stabilises or declines, then it’s possible for employment to rise even without a rise in the GDP.
At first sight this doesn’t seem very comforting either. We’ve become so used to seeing labour productivity as the engine of progress in modern capitalist economies. It’s our ability to generate more output with fewer people that’s lifted our lives out of drudgery and delivered us the cornucopia of material wealth – smartphones, hybrid cars, cheap holiday flights and plasmascreen TVs – to which we would all very much like to become accustomed.
Let’s leave aside here momentarily that one of the ways in which we’ve achieved this remarkable feat is by substituting capital (lots of clever technology) and material resources (fuel and other minerals) for people’s time. And that in the process we’ve created a lot of the ecological problems we now have to solve. My point here is rather to draw attention to the structural demands imposed by everrising labour productivity.
Put simply, the obsession with labour productivity means that if our economies don’t grow, we risk putting people out of work, even without increases in the population. Higher unemployment generates rising welfare costs. Higher public spending leads to unwieldy levels of sovereign debt. Higher debts can only be serviced by increasing tax revenues from future income. We’re hooked on growth.
This unhappy dynamic has recently prompted the revival of an old idea. If there’s less work to be had in the economy, for whatever reason, then perhaps we should all just work less and enjoy it. As it happens, we’ve always taken some of the labour productivity gains in the form of increased leisure time. Working hours in the UK declined by 15% between 1970 and 2005.
Reducing working hours further is the simplest and most often cited solution to the challenge of maintaining
50 Resurgence & Ecologist