In the Western world, materialist values, which are related to job achievement, may be waning. To be self-sufficient, to live sustainably, to care for peace and justice — these are some aims of 21st-century generations. Until now, neoliberal economics, coupled with industrial organization, has dominated. In the future, human potential becomes preeminent in a society that’s sane, humane and ecological (SHE).
A SHE economy puts people before things. It recognizes that people’s energies and skills are essential renewable resources compared to the unrenewable resources required for capital-intensive plans. A SHE economic world flips today’s economic equation. Employing people is a cost that many organizations try to reduce, whereas in a SHE economy, the cost would be the loss of opportunities for personally satisfying occupations. The emphasis shifts toward meeting people’s needs for belongingness, love, esteem and self-actualization.
Once people have all they need, we compete for what we want until finite luxuries, such as a privileged education, a house with open views or a club that others cannot join, are the only things that set us apart from others. Positional goods, however, are rationed by definition. It would no longer be worth joining the club if everyone could. Individuals either get vicious or abandon the race and settle for other delights that are unlimited, such as free time, personal growth, expressions of creativity, socializing or sport.
In a SHE economy, people are less willing to work in jobs that are perceived to be frustrating, harmful or futile; they insist on spending their work time in ways that contribute to social well-being and personal goals and values. A SHE economy aims for healthy rather than cancerous growth. Human needs, social justice and ecological sustainability are the priorities, not material gain for its own sake.
More discretionary time is created by a future with less work and longer lives. To think of all this new free time as leisure would be wrong. Some languages have no word for ”leisure” because it’s an unspecific term that can include rest, recreation or self-development. Perhaps we should ditch it, too. Leisure is generally seen as the antithesis of work, so you don’t have leisure either if you don’t have work. It would be patronizing in the extreme to speak of the unemployed as having ample leisure. Forced leisure is neither rest, nor recreation, nor growth.
Coping with multiple possibilities is an optimistic way of describing uncertainty. This will not look like heaven on earth to everyone.
If we want to be the choosers and not the victims of our future, we need a sense of person, purpose and pattern.
First, a sense of person. Each of us must see ourself as someone with an identity, someone who matters, who makes a difference to some people, can contribute and can create in ways however small.
Second, a sense of purpose. Naturally, there are many purposes in life other than materialism. Whether in art or engineering, the desire to create, the will to care for others, living a life of dedication to God in a convent or a monastery, learning and educating oneself — these are all purposes that provide traction and the criteria for choice. To be purposeless is to be a potential victim, not a chooser.
Today all the patterns are changing at once. Careers may unexpectedly end. Work and income are less predictable. We may feel that what we’re experiencing is something that is happening to us alone, not part of a pattern. Even families and other relationships are more fluid, less of a safety net than they ever were.
Full employment — meaning everyone who wants full-time, lifetime jobs at good pay can get them — is not feasible in the foreseeable future. A more productive industry might create more wealth, but it will create more jobs only if output improves faster than productivity. Thus, we’re presented with two scenarios for the future: one in which leisure reigns, and one in which the definition of work expands.
The leisure scenario seeks to turn unemployment into a positive advantage. It suggests that a few, aided by a lot of machines, will do the work for the many, who will then be able to enjoy a life of leisure. Universal basic income would support most people, leaving work as an optional extra. People would be paid to be consumers.
The optimistic version of this scenario sees a flourishing of the arts and recreation, with enhanced community life, education devoted to the enrichment of self and others, a life devoid of toil. The pessimistic version turns to a society divided between those who work (and hold power) and the masses who consume and live on the state.
In the work scenario, employment is only part of the entire economy, and money is only one reward for work. There is enough work for everyone in this scenario, for work is priced at zero, as a gift, most times. Since all work brings some status, there is enough possible status for everyone. If we were all willing and able to make do with part-time jobs, there could be enough money for everyone.
It is more important to challenge and to discard our assumptions than to explore all the possible nuances of the future. But many today are still fixated on defining work as paid employment. In the U.S., one’s income and healthcare are tied to permanent employment. Status and identity stem from employment. Therefore, we’ve held on to employment as long as we can, measuring our success in terms of it and hoping big things for society and ourselves from it. Without it, are we able to build a future? There is an individualist streak in all of us, but selling ourselves or our time to another just to make money, rather than as an act of self-expression, is alienating. We get to create a better way.