Rethinking work for sustainability and justice

By Erik Gomez-Baggethun

Work time reduction is one of the central policy proposals brought forward by ecological economists and degrowth scholars to reduce environmental pressure and unemployment and enhance human well-being. In its broader meaning, work is defined as an activity involving mental or physical effort done to achieve a purpose or result. In economic and policy debates, however, the dominant notion of ‘work’ has acquired a much narrower meaning. It does not extend to cover the activities required for the reproduction of life such as caring and housekeeping, neither the broader set of things we do on our own initiative without expecting remuneration. The dominant conception of work remains confined to the set of activities formally recognized by society as worthy of remuneration. For most people in Western capitalist countries, work is still understood as wage labour, and weekly working times of around 40 hours have come to be perceived as an almost natural configuration of time.

As naturalized prevailing notions of work and working time may seem for us today, these have been fiercely contested throughout history, adopting very different forms as they were reshaped by the compounding effects of political struggle, technological developments, and changing cultural values. A closer look into the evolving perception of work and working time suggests that deeply rooted cultural values and beliefs in Western societies may be acting as a stronger barrier for work time reductions than the technical and economic viability arguments typically evoked by opponents.

A look into history allows us to critically examine prevailing notions of work and working time from a broader temporal and cultural perspective. Most preindustrial societies were not organized around work, and the languages of many indigenous societies even lack a term we could equate with the current understanding of work. According to Jaques Ellul, the idea of a ‘work ethic’ was incomprehensible to pre-industrial cultures.  Over most of the course of humanity work was seen as a curse, not a virtue. Refraining from consumption was favoured over hard work, mostly kept to the necessary minimum to make a living. Similarly, ancient Greeks, as Hannah Arendt notes, considered any activity motivated by profit or performed in exchange for a payment unworthy of a free person, as opposed to “free activities” such as those devoted to philosophy, arts, sports, and politics. According to Arendt, that contempt for work originally arose “out of a passionate striving for freedom from necessity.”

The conception of work as a curse continued over Roman times, as the etymology of work illustrates. The words for work in French (travaille) and Spanish (trabajo) derive from the Latin tripalium, an instrument of torture. Early Christian positions on work did not differ essentially from those of the Greeks and Romans. Work was portrayed as a punishment with origin in a biblical curse and was not seen as individually or socially desirable. The Middle Ages, however, represent a transitory stage between the ancient and present understandings of work. Andrea Komlosy describes the medieval conception of work as a ‘Janus-faced juxtaposition of burden and fulfilment’. On the one hand, work was conceived as hardship. On the other hand, it started to be positively connoted as a source of dignity and as a service to God.

Appetite for accumulation and growth changed attitudes towards work

Max Weber links the evolution of a work ethic to the expanding influence of Puritanism and Calvinism in the psychic development of the middle classes over the 16th and 17th centuries. But if a work ethic was firmly established in the industrial and merchant bourgeoisie of that time, it would still take centuries to break down contempt for wage labour among the peasantry; getting the workers from domestic industries to the factories would long remain a daunting task. According to Edward Palmer Thompson, it is not until the middle 19th Century that we can glimpse “the kind of temperate, prudent, and responsible worker, proud to possess a watch”.

Modern economics completed this change of attitudes, marking the decisive break in the western history of work. Work came to be venerated as a ‘productive activity’ and measured by its contribution to economic output. Appetite for accumulation and growth changed attitudes towards work and technology. Work was no longer a means to meet one’s needs of existence, but a means of accumulation intended to serve the insatiable wants of the homo economicus. Technological innovations that increased productivity were no longer seen as work-saving developments but as product-expanding ones

Do we work more or less than our ancestors?

The conventional wisdom in work time debates assumes that industrial capitalism reduced human toil and that current working hours are historically low, a position typically defended by comparing the modern forty-hour week with its seventy- or eighty-hour counterpart in the 19th Century. An alternative body of literature, however, contends that before capitalism, many people did not work very long hours, the tempo of life was slow, the pace of work relaxed, and leisure abundant.

Working time in Europe increased dramatically with the industrial revolution, peaking at around 3500 hours per year in the mid-19th Century when the push for shorter working hours gained momentum. Following pressure from organized labour, work hours in industrialized countries decreased by almost half between the 1830s and the first half of the 20th Century, when the eight-hours and five-day workweek became the standard in the old, industrialized countries. During much of the 20th Century, work time reduction was conceived as the logical or even inevitable outcome of steady increases in work productivity. John Maynard Keynes famously predicted fifteen hours workweeks to his grandchildren, and Nixon foresaw a four-day workweek in the 1950s.

Why did history not follow this path? Keynes and his contemporaries underestimated the extent to which the growth-dependent capitalist societies would use productivity gains from technological progress to expand consumption instead of leisure time. Steady increases in work productivity are no longer seen as a means to reduce working time, but to continuously increase production and consumption. Progress in work time reduction is equally disappointing in the sector of unpaid care and household-work. Against the common belief, time use studies suggest that the introduction of electricity, running water, and ‘labour-saving’ appliances in the 20th Century have not resulted in any major declines in housework time. Time saving enabled by technology has been offset by a rise in expected standards of cleanliness and childcare.

Environmental destruction, rising inequalities, fears of massive unemployment from accelerated automation, and growing dissatisfaction with work centred lives are all symptoms that invite to rethink the meaning, purpose, volume, content, and distribution of work. As shown above, prevailing ideas about work and working time are largely the product of technological, economic, and cultural developments under industrial capitalism. As Judy Wajcman notes, “there is nothing natural or inevitable in the way we work”.

The case for sufficiency and fair distribution as organising principles of work

An understanding of work based on ecological economics would extend the notion of “work” to all activities required for the provisioning of basic needs, both material and emotional. Whether these activities are domestic or market-oriented, productive, or reproductive should at the outset not be defining criteria for their social status and level of remuneration. Through this lens, the nature of work appears as intrinsic to the human condition, its goal being to enable societal reproduction. Given environmental limits and the inevitable nature of work, sufficiency and fair distribution become central organizing principles. There is no good reason to understand work as the ultimate vehicle to emancipation. This idea, hereditary of industrial capitalism, reproduces the cult of work and the dogmas of work-centred civilizations. Once necessary societal work is covered, individuals who have contributed their fair share shall freely decide whether they search for meaning, purpose, and self-realization through work, leisure, or both. A core principle for reorganizing work along these lines is thus the egalitarian distribution of minimal necessary work

From this, various fundamental questions arise: Which changes in the distribution and remuneration of work are required to achieve higher levels of social justice? Under a given technological regime, which volume of work is required to cover basic needs within just and safe environmental limits? Which technologies (and at which scale) are compatible with ecology and convivial lifestyles? Which are the associated limits to automation? Which jobs are essential, which are desirable, and which ones should be discouraged or abolished?

Redefining norms for rewarding work

At least four aspects deserve attention to rethink the normative and institutional architecture of present work remuneration: 1) the boundaries defining which work is worthy of remuneration, 2) the current lack of coherence between levels of reward and the socioenvironmental value of work, 3) asymmetries between work hardship and remuneration, and 4) extreme income inequality.

Worktime reductions, I claim, should follow principles of sustainability, solidarity, and time justice. A marked trend in developed countries over recent decades is the classed, raced, and gendered polarisation between those who are overworked and those who are involuntarily unemployed and underemployed. The logical principle to counter this trend is work sharing. In addition, worktime reductions in the waged sector should be designed with attention to prevailing inequalities in the distribution of unpaid household and other reproductive work, which could be possibly evened through a caring income.

There is scope for worktime reduction through shifting the productivity dividend of technology developments from increased consumption to increased leisure. Criteria to inform the feasible scale of worktime reduction shall include societal shortfalls and ecological overshoots, energy availability, unemployment levels, and the social (dis)utility of jobs.

There is, to conclude, an important lesson we have learned from history, namely, that technological progress will not liberate us from work on its own. Left to the dictates of markets, and with the capital-labour power balance remaining unchecked, productivity dividends will keep serving economic expansion and shareholder profits over increases in salary or leisure. The golden age of worktime reductions —broadly extending from 1830s to the mid-20th Century— was a period of sustained social struggle, which repertoire of action included strikes, organized disobedience, property destruction, and collective bargaining. Major work time reductions are unlikely to come about without stronger democratic control over the economy, technology, and the workplace.

*This post is based on the paper “Rethinking work for a just and sustainable future”, published in the journal of Ecological Economics

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Erik Gomez-Baggethun is a Professor in Environmental Governance at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), a Senior Scientific Advisor at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, and a Senior Visiting Research Associate at the University of Oxford. His research covers various topics in ecological economics and the sustainability sciences. He is President-elect of the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE) and a lead author of the global values assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Image: “Hamster Wheel Painting” by Lucas Hauser under a creative commons licence on Flickr

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