Living well – the future of jobs and the planet

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Living well – the future of jobs and the planet

The idea that we must have full employment is not a good idea in our world of climate emergency. Richard Swift writes about what could help us . p35_high.jpg

Dancers in Arica, Chile celebrate the indigenous Aymara culture of the Andes – but in modern clothes. JEFFREY ISAAC GREENBERG 20+/ALAMY

‘A job’ seems so very important in our political economy of growth. Having a job seems to be the most important thing in our lives for most of our day. If we don’t have a job, we feel very anxious and the need to get one. To live without a job seems impossible. Our job often makes us who we are and it is how others see us. Perhaps it’s ‘managing’ people’s money, harvesting crops, or collecting the rubbish. The people with power over us are often the people who can hire or fire us, and the people who own or control the places where we work.

The promise of ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ is what we hear from politicians. It doesn’t matter what they do but they promise us jobs. But the jobs are often poorly paid, temporary, or part-time work, but when the next election comes, we will hear the promises again.

Jobs can have power over everything else – mental and physical health, national independence, democracy, our environment – and all too often jobs make us unhappy. Some people enjoy their work but more and more people feel that the hours they work on modern flexi-jobs is time they lose just to survive.

But politicians like to keep us busy because time at work keeps us off the streets and out of trouble. Rightwing populism likes work anxiety and it says people of colour, immigrants, refugees, or foreigners are ‘stealing’ ‘our’ jobs. Donald Trump promised to bring the jobs back. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil promised to take away the things stopping us from having jobs - unions, environmentalists protecting the Amazon, human rights, Covid-19 restrictions.

Few permanent jobs

It is difficult to understand our job culture but many people, particularly in the Global South, do not have regular jobs. They have to try to earn enough money in ‘informal employment’. The small island of Dominica is one of the poorest in the Caribbean. There less than a third of the population has a permanent job. They often have to do more than one job, for example, agriculture, and clearing roadside brush, or working in tourism. In the cities of the Global South many workers go to the city in the hope of finding jobs. The history of both colonialism and neo-colonialism tells us about control such as poll taxes used to force poor farmers into the cities to work in terrible conditions. China forced the peasants into factories, and made the way for Chinese capitalism.

Today more people work recycling rubbish from big city dumps in places like Manila, Mexico City, and Nairobi - about 15 million in 2018 - than workers with well-paid jobs in the car industry worldwide - about 14 million before Covid-19. There are more people looking for jobs than there are jobs. They won’t find jobs in industry because it is less and less labour-intensive and so there are fewer and fewer workers in industrial jobs around the world.

The way to the future of jobs

Many people think that to have full employment means having too many useless jobs. Wouldn’t the world be better without telemarketers, consultants, middle management, and ‘the financial services industry’? But as we go into the age of climate crisis, we need to think about the jobs we do in a very different way. If we continue to think that it is a good idea to have as many jobs as possible, the world will be in serious trouble. Carbon capitalism and its industries of oil and gas, petrochemicals, coal and other mining, car manufacture, and weapons production, etc, cannot give us the healthy employment of the future.

Think about plastics. They are killing our planet. Production in 2020 was 244 times greater than in 1950. Plastic is everywhere. It spoils our beaches and our rivers, destroys coral reefs around the world, and kills wildlife from seabirds to whales. There are now two big floating rubbish patches of micro-plastic waste – one in the Western and one in the Eastern Pacific Oceans. Perhaps even worse is the carbon-intensive life-cycle of plastic. In 2019, a study by UC Santa Barbara said, ‘If this continues, emissions from plastics will reach 17 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2050.’

To reduce the use of plastic, jobs in the plastics industry need to fall dramatically. Just 20 big companies produce half of the world’s single-use plastic. Of course, if we protest, they will say they are giving workers so many wonderful jobs around the world!

But plastics are just the beginning. There are millions of other kinds of jobs we need to move away from if we want to live safely on our planet.

Where do we go from here?

If, like politicians, we believe in full employment, we will die. ‘Jobs for all’ will continue to damage the natural world. the animal world, and us humans. Full employment is about full growth – a growth we cannot afford.

Work should help to build social justice and ecological sustainability. We need to reduce work fairly and equally to what is necessary to live simply. We need to remove billionaire inequality, have a universal basic income, reduce working hours, and guarantee services like free education and good healthcare.

We need to value slowness instead of speed and replace competition with working together thoughtfully. We need a system which gives workers power and lets communities make decisions on what to produce. Mostly we need to learn to live well and not try to always live better.

Can we do it? We won’t know if we don’t try.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)