. . .is the first question many people ask If we're consuming less won't there be even fewer jobs than there are now? Well, yes, possibly, but stepping back a minute makes you realise just how crazy the whole employment system is anyway.
For a start, lots of work is done which dosent need doing.
Do we really need electric toothbrushes? 14 different brands of them? Gadgets to get the bobbly bits off woolly jumpers, slice the top off boiled eggs, or massage our toes (yes, they do exist...) Or perhaps more seriously, cars (a new one every two years, please), dishwashers? Or pornography? Or nuclear weapons?
On the other hand, lots of work isn't being done that does need doing. Just in the area of environmental protection, Friends of the Earth recently estimated that hundreds of thousands of extra jobs could be created - in areas like pollution control, public transport, energy efficiency systems, recycling and repairing goods, wind and solar power (1)...And then there's the health service, community care, education. . . And as we mentioned earlier, much of the work that keeps the West in the style to which it is accustomed is done in the South. We could be doing more of that for ourselves, leaving the South freer to work on its own priorities.
And the way work is distributed is just as crazy. Some people get ill with the stress of working all hours, whilst others get ill from the stress of not being able to get work at all and being on society's scrap-heap.
Of course, many people, even in Britain, have little choice - they have to stay in their (low-paid) jobs literally just to make ends meet. But many others, surrounded by the advertisers' images, and the society-defined requirement to keep up with the Jones's and to be seen to be a hard worker, keep slogging their guts out making the things to earn the money to buy the things they make (sung to the tune of . . .) Work harder, earn more money, buy more things, keep going. Round and round and round, without ever questioning whether all this is really leading to a better quality of life. And then are surprised when they realise that their children are strangers, they have no friends to turn to when a crisis hits, they never play the piano/read a book, see a film, and they can't quite see the point of it all, anyway.
Take all those time-saving appliances. Ivan Illich once pointed out that by the time someone has worked the hours to earn the money to pay for their car, and its tax, insurance, petrol and repairs, and spent time looking after it and sitting in traffic jams in it, they will effectively have trawlled no faster than if they had been on foot (2) (That's how most people travel in Africa ) The same could be said about all sorts of 'labour-saving' devices. Moreover, the ones which really are useful will break down after a short while because they've been built with obsolescence in mind, so that they'll need replacing (spare parts not being available) .
And take CD players. Ten years ago, most people felt that the sound produced by their record players was perfectly adequate. And take clothes... or toys... a new lot being wanted every year, largely because someone has decided that last year's type is no longer in fashion
It's important to say here that we're not arguing against technological advance, against comfort or against pleasure... what we're objecting to is the message, drummed into us over and over again, that more is always better. That your car is what you are. That upgrading your stereo will solve all your problems. Put like that, few would disagree, but how many people act day- to-day as though these nonsenses were true?
But if we did get away from these myths, maybe we wouldn't be so disturbed at the idea of a lower income, trading material wealth for more time to do whatever we enjoy. James Robertson, a 'green' economist, has proposed a scenario of the future in which full employment as it is currently understood would never be restored, but work would be redefined to include many forms of useful paid and unpaid activity.(3) Work would be shared around more equally, there would be many different working patterns according to need and preference, and part-time work would be common. Many people would be employed in small co- operatives, providing goods and services for themselves and the local area, using small-scale technologies. More work would be done in and around people's homes, childcare and housework could be more integrated, and the distinction between work and leisure would be blurred. To make this possible, he suggests the adoption of a Basic Income Scheme. In this, everyone, whether working for money or not, would receive a basic income as of right, to be financed by taxation . This would enable people to decide how they divided their time between paid and unpaid activities. He also suggests many other detailed economic changes. The idea does not mean that all high technology, international communication or big business should be scrapped, but merely that the balance should change.
Obviously (to come back to Earth) not many individuals can put these ideas into practice in our current economic system. Even working part-time is penalised, in terms of rights to benefits and so on. But the point is, our crazy way of doing things may well be based on a false premise. Our culture may have gone down a blind alley. If we could create the political will to change work patterns, not only would the South and the environment benefit we might all have a better time too. And whilst it might sound Utopian, so many people are currently out of work that these kind of changes might even - for once - evolve, as a genuine 'grass-roots' response.