8 06 2009


Mostly we are told that unemployment is an evil to be avoided at all costs. That our best efforts should be directed to making sure there is enough work available for all. When there is an economic downturn such as the recent global financial crisis, then work dries up, unemployment rises and people suffer. The usual approach to solving this problem is economic stimulus – that is; finding ways to get the economy moving. More demand for things results in more production which means more work and a lowering of unemployment. I seriously question this way of looking at the problem. As the title of this blog suggests, I want to turn the whole idea on its head.

Just say there is an economic downturn, production goes down, there is a shortage of work and people lose jobs. At this point I would ask; is there still enough being produced to support us all? Is food still being produced, are schools and hospitals still operating, are electricity and other utilities still available? The answer to this question in a country like Australia at least, is an obvious yes. The enormous productive capacity of our civilization means that even when less people are involved in production (i.e. unemployment) we can still produce plenty. In fact it’s not hard to argue that much of our production is for the creation of things that are unnecessary or even destructive. We could significantly reduce the amount of stuff we produce and still have enough, except for one small problem – unemployment. We are caught in a double bind. Reducing production increases unemployment, even if the reduced production is desirable.

But turn the whole thing on its head and an incredible opportunity becomes apparent.
Unemployment in a society that is already producing enough is simply a potential for lower working hours. That’s why it is good. It points to the fact we have solved the age old economic problem of survival. As machines do more and more of our work there is obviously less and less work for us to do. We are being freed from work not put out of work.

Each time there is a technological advance it frees up some labour, (or as we mostly say, it puts people out of work). Generally that excess labour has been used to do things that we didn’t have time to do before – to improve our standard of living. This process has been occurring more or less continually since the Industrial Revolution began. It is a process of being able to do more and more with less and less human labour. Gradually over time it has gotten us to the point where material survival is easily taken care of.
Obviously in the early days of our technological development there were plenty of things that needed to be done and so we thrived on the extra labour and productivity that machines gave us. But now after much progress most of the essential things have been taken care of and it is increasingly difficult to find meaningful things for our excess workers to do. At this stage the option of reducing our work hours, rather than producing more comes into its own. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that reducing working hours is just another way of raising living standards. To my mind this is one of the great economic frontiers.

Some people writing on this subject speak about the four day working week, others about the four hour day. My point is that as long as we are driven to create work for employment’s sake rather than work for meeting our needs for living, then none of it will happen.




2 responses

6 07 2012

While the basic logic of the manifesto is solid, there is an important aspect to the argument that is overlooked. We can deal with unemployment every bit as effectively by having people work fewer hours, as we can by increasing demand.

8 07 2012

My point exactly – the question in my mind though is what do we increase the demand for? Do we try to create articficial demands for more and more stuff as so much of our economic system is set up to do (it has been demonstrated again and again that more stuff is not the source of lasting happiness – see the life of Michael Jackson for an extreme example of this), or, do we increase the demand for a richer and more fulfilinbg life of which two of the central ingredients are a) more free time and b) reducing the current overload on the Earth’s ecosystems by doing away with unesseccary production. The second option makes a lot more sense to me.

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