Work For Life

“Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten the message that the more we struggle and the more we suffer, the more valuable we will become and the more successful we’ll eventually be. And so we overwork ourselves, overschedule ourselves, and become “busier than thou” because we think there’s some sort of prize on the other side of the pain we cause ourselves. And you know what? There’s no prize. All you get from suffering is more suffering.” – Kate Northrup

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

We’re currently living through an era of great change – “Interesting Times”, as the old curse goes – and the way we work is changing with it. During these moments of change we often wonder what it would take to make things go “back to normal” even if there is no “normal” to go back to – or whether we should even try given the problems we all knew existed in that “old normal”.

During the Covid lockdowns of the last few years many of us were suddenly thrust into a new normal when it came to work as our offices were closed and we started working from home (and yes, I’m one of the lucky ones who were able to do this. Not every job can be worked from home. Not every home can be easily worked from).

For many, the transition was a difficult one. For many others though, the transition to home working brought many positives, including no longer having to spend several hours a day commuting. One of the advantages I’ve personally found is the increased flexibility to step away from my desk for a few moments to take a break or get something done around the house (even if it’s just to put a load of washing on) rather than having to wait till I’m home, knackered and would rather do anything else.

image_2022-09-05_103902942(Image Source: The Centre for Ageing Better)

While they don’t work for everyone, the new work from home models have worked for enough people that they’ve had a serious impact on the number of people working in offices around the country and while the UK’s “office occupancy rate” has been increasing since the first lockdown it has in many cases come about via “hybrid working” where folk either go to the office for a few days in the week instead of full time. Office Occupancy shows a marked reduction on Mondays and Tuesdays as people seem to be favouring those as their “work from home” days.

This transition has not been as popular with employers as it has with employees. This is understandable, as a company with an office has fixed rent and other costs to pay regardless of whether their office is full or half empty. There is also a suspicion and distrust of employees who must be kept nose-to-the-grindstone creating productivity for their corporate overlords. And then there’s the “economic impact” of workers who aren’t commuting not stopping in at local coffee shops to shake off their commute-induced sleep deprivation (I wonder how many city-centre landlords own both office blocks and coffee shops within their portfolio…has anyone published any studies of vertical integration in the rented property market?).

It’s no wonder then that we’re starting to see news articles about employers mandating the end to work from home despite a more flexible approach being far more popular with workers along with articles telling us how our energy crisis will be much worse unless we get back into the office.
For the record, there’s a counter-argument to that one that says high energy bills will force people back into the office. It only work if your house is truly empty during the working day – if you have a partner, kids or even pets in the house during the day then the heating demand won’t drop much if you leave – and it only works if commuting is actually cheaper than heating. If rail strikes or bad weather make getting to the office unreliable, then working from home is your only option. Add in the fact that on a per person or a per square metre basis, most offices are more expensive to heat than even our woefully inefficient homes and commercial properties aren’t protected by even the woefully failing energy price cap then it may be that many office-based businesses simply can’t afford to operate through this winter. Telling their staff to work from home may be the only option. Indeed, even that may not be enough. With increased costs hitting their ability to deliver their goods and services and those same cost pressures also reducing their customer’s ability to buy those goods and services (if you have nothing, or less than nothing, left to spend after you’ve paid rent and energy costs then you’re not going shopping). The recessions we’re about to enter may cause many business already struggling under the weight of Covid and Brexit to simply fold.

When Bill Johnston and I wrote our book, All of Our Futures, on the future of ageing in Scotland we dedicated a chapter to the future of work in that context. We also considered the longer term “challenge” that is Scotland’s demographic transition – something I talked about here a few weeks ago. I’m not surprised by the news that Scotland’s population is projected to start shrinking again as a result of ageing demographics and Brexit’s impact on immigration but I’m also not surprised by the shallow response that we must “do something” to shore up the working age population or GDP Growth might suffer. That analysis again paints our worth only as producers of things and consumers of said things – if we can each produce and consume at exponentially growing rates every year then that’d be great but in the absence of that ability then as responsible capitalists ensuring that there are more of us to do the producing and consuming is the least we can do.

We all know by now that GDP Growth is not an appropriate metric for the health of the economy. Even the Scottish Government knows this, even if they’re in denial about it. Instead we should be looking at how to consistently and reliably increase Wellbeing in the economy. This means that if we can consistently improve the lives of people in Scotland then the size and trajectory of our GDP is ultimately irrelevant.

In terms of our own work life, we’re starting to see people value their working wellbeing more than ever. This is the root of the popularity of things like work from home and it should be embraced especially in the broader and more long term context of the ageing workforce. We saw in Bill’s article on the Life-Stage MOT that we can apply it to the workplace to allow people to continue in the jobs they enjoy as they get older or otherwise find their needs changing. We should encourage an environment of workers and employees collaborating to improve the wellbeing of the workplace and make our jobs something that we actively want to do rather than just something where we sacrifice our limited time on this planet to the altar of GDP Growth in exchange for the money we need to sacrifice to that same cursed idol as we consume. (I say “we” here in the purely collective sense. I love my job at Common Weal)

Both the UK and Scottish Governments promised us that after Covid we would “Build Back Better” but neither has done much to actually make this happen yet and both appear to have interpreted “better” to mean “with a higher GDP”. Forty years of GDP Growth has seen the wealth of the Commons increasingly hoarded by a privileged few. Periodic recessions (almost every ten years in the UK) have seen even more of that wealth hoarded by the same privileged few. If growing GDP has made us almost as poor as shrinking GDP has…why are we still banking on it saving us next time?

We need to fundamentally change our approach to measuring the “success” of our economy. We need economy and a body politic that is absolutely comfortable with saying something like “Our GDP has decreased as a result of our expansive Tool Library policy – now everyone is able to repair and maintain their home without worrying about the cost of doing so” or “Our GDP has decreased because of the number of people swapping their private car for membership of their community bicycle pool. We expect to see the health benefits result in NHS funding cuts in the years to come as resources are freed up to spend on care and other services.” or even “Our GDP has decreased because our population is ageing and that’s fine because Wellbeing per Capita is still increasing and everyone has everything they need to live a decent, worthy life without having to go to the shops to buy more of the latest disposable distraction.”

Ultimately we have to ask ourselves why we are living the lives the way we are throughout our lives. If the economy is working for us rather than us for it, then we stand a chance of being able to secure and improve our lives no matter where we are and what we’re doing. The next time a politician tells us that they plan to “Build Back Better” then we need to ask them; “Who for?”

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