In the wake of economic crisis on a global scale, more and more people are reconsidering their role in the economy and wondering what they can do to make it work better for humanity and the planet. In Take Back the Economy (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy contribute complex understandings of economics in practical terms: what can we do right now, in our own communities, to make a difference? In the following excerpt from chapter 2, “Take Back Work,” discover why so many people are re-evaluating their work-life balance.
You can purchase this book from the Utne Reader store: Take Back the Economy.
What Is Work?
Work is what we do for a living—it’s what we do to survive. Work gives us an identity. It’s a way of defining who we are. When we meet people for the first time, we usually want to know what they do for a living. We’re interested in how much they are paid and what status is attached to their position.
Work has the potential to be a source of great pleasure and meaning—it can be where intellectual and practical challenges are posed and met, where we can create new things, use our ingenuity, interact with others, and accomplish things. Whether it is raising a child, running a farm, caring for the sick, making airplanes, managing personnel, defending criminals, or programming computers—all kinds of work can be fulfilling.
But work can also be a drudge. It can be repetitive, physically demanding, unsafe, isolated, and so low paid that it barely covers living costs. It can take over people’s lives.
In some low-wage sectors people are working longer and longer simply to get by. Those with well-paying jobs are also working longer and longer, perhaps because this is what the job demands or perhaps to buy the things that they think they need. And in countries where the majority of working people do unpaid subsistence and caring work, they are increasingly forced to find ways of paying for basic needs like schooling and medical care. They must find ways of making money to supplement whatever else they do to survive.
All over the world, it seems, quality of life and health are being jeopardized by long workdays and workweeks. And there is no evidence that working longer or for more money increases our happiness. Indeed, national-level data show that despite increasing incomes since the 1950s, levels of happiness have not increased, and in some countries they have decreased. In many households across the globe, the balance is skewed; too much time is being spent working for money and, as a consequence, there’s not enough time for life.
Now we have discovered that increased income is an addiction—the more money and possessions we have, the more we need to acquire to feel happy. And there is mounting evidence that there are social and psychological costs associated with material- and consumption-focused lifestyles. When incomes increase and when the gap between the highest- and lowest-paid workers widens, a host of modern-day health problems follow—rising levels of social isolation, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse.
The usual story of progress is that as majority world countries are integrated into the “global economy,” waged work will displace unpaid work and become the work that people do. Certainly this is happening in countries like China and India and in Southeast Asia as tens of millions of people are becoming wage earners.
This could all be well and good but for the fact that, with the doubling of the global paid labor force in the 1980s and 1990s, more and more of us are spending our hard-earned money on more and more “stuff.” In the constant drive for satisfaction we are eating into our planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate and polluting our environment at unprecedented levels.
Across the globe, work as we know it is not achieving the goal of surviving well. We are working more but surviving poorly. We are overconsuming the earth’s resources, undermining our health, and not improving our levels of happiness. Can we rebalance the scales? We think we can, but we might need to step back from the work treadmill and think about what we really need to survive well.
This is not going to be easy. When we’ve become so heavily invested in the things that money can buy, there’s a lot at stake. But if we are to take back the economy, we need to reconsider our working lives in the context of our own well-being and the well-being of other humans and the planet. Let’s look at how two different groups are dealing with this very real dilemma.
Living to Work or Working to Live?
Downshifters are workers who have thought carefully about the work-life balance and made the decision to overhaul their lives. These individuals make a conscious choice to reduce their income but improve their quality of life. They cut back on their paid work, take up lower-paying jobs, move to less expensive houses or regions, change careers, or stop paid work completely. Studies show that between one-fifth and one-fourth of the U.S., Australian, and British populations in their thirties, forties, and fifties voluntarily downshifted during the 1990s.
Downshifters make the change because they want to spend more time with their family, live healthier lives, find more fulfillment and happiness, live in a less material way, or reduce their impact on the environment. Importantly, downshifters come from across the range of income groups and social grades. In Britain, for example, 25 percent of semiskilled manual workers and apprentices downshifted between 1993 and 2003, as did 27 percent of executives, managers, and professionals.
And what do these downshifters do with their time? They stop and smell the roses! They don’t necessarily work less; they do different kinds of work—spending time caring for their families and friends, volunteering informally or in organized community groups, studying things they had always wanted to learn about. They make, swap, and gift things instead of buying them. They take up hobbies, relax more, exercise more, sleep more. Overall, they take control of their lives and start to enjoy well-rounded and meaningful days and weeks at a calmer pace.
At the other end of the work spectrum are many of us who feel bound to the need for a well-paying job to secure our families’ well-being. In the resources sector in Australia, workers are attracted to high incomes and the promise of material security. Coal miners, for example, earn on average around A$120,000 per annum, 33 percent more than the next-highest-paid group of workers. This privileged position in the labor force comes courtesy of the great profits made by coal companies operating in a nation that is the world’s largest black coal exporter.
The money might be great—but there’s a cost. Miners work the longest hours of any employee group, and mines operate continuously. So miners work twelve-hour shifts excavating and crushing coal or loading it onto the huge ships that take it to the steel furnaces and power stations of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, and India. With coal miners working schedules such as four days on and four days off, often at a distance from their families, it’s not surprising that employees in the industry score it as having the second-worst work-life balance (information, media, and telecommunications workers score theirs as having the worst balance). Families run on one schedule, and miners run on another—life turns into different merry-go-rounds.
This situation is a long way from that of the 1970s, when miners were the first in Australia to achieve a family-friendly seven-hour day and a thirty-five-hour workweek (with weekends off). But that was just at the beginning of the open-cut mining boom and before the exponential increase in international demand for Australian coal. As the industry has grown, so has the pace of work intensified and payment for work skyrocketed.
Many coal miners enter the industry knowing that they are putting their work-life balance at risk. They start with a vow to stay only a few years, make good money, and then get out fast. Unfortunately, it’s easy to say, less easy to do. There’s even a name for their situation in the industry—the “golden handcuffs.” Miners and their families get used to the hefty pay package, spend big, and often get caught up in the high levels of debt that can come with high incomes.
This is a familiar story of money speaking louder than anything else. And it’s a story of a cycle that many of us are bound up in. Even when we know that long hours and harsh conditions are undermining our well-being, we can find ways of justifying what we’re doing—“We’ll only do it for a short time, and then we’ll stop” and “It will pay off in the long run.”
Perhaps we can even justify the environmental impact of our work—“I’m just one worker trying to do the best I can by my family; I’m not having that big an impact” or “My work contributes to a strong economy that everyone benefits from, and it will help secure the nation’s future.”
These are the kinds of refrains that are likely to circulate in our minds when we face up to the dilemmas of managing work and the well-being of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our planet. And the question remains—does well-being result? Are we surviving well?
Surviving Well: A Key Concern for a Community Economy
What does it mean to survive well? We know that the most common answer is that surviving well means getting a well-paying job that provides material security. But as we have seen, greater material security does not always add up to greater well-being. According to the latest global study, material security is only one of the elements essential for human happiness: “Well-being is about the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities. Most importantly, it’s about how these five elements interact.”
This research tells us that to survive well we need to achieve a mix of the five different types of well-being:
• Material well-being, which comes from having the resources to meet our basic needs and being satisfied with the resources we have.
• Occupational well-being, which comes from a sense of enjoyment of what we do each day, whether in a conventional job or as a student, a parent, a volunteer, or a retiree.
• Social well-being, which comes from having close personal relationships and a supportive social network.
• Community well-being, which comes from being involved in community activities.
• Physical well-being, which comes from good health and a safe living environment.
We are interested in creating community economies in which we think and act ethically in relation to each other and the environment. One starting point is to think about the work that we do and the ways this work might be contributing to or undermining these five elements of well-being and thereby affecting both our own and others’ abilities to survive well. In community economies we aim for a balance among these five contributors to surviving well. This means having the time and energy to combine different forms of work. But when so much of our labor time is put into making money, how can we allow for such a mix? How might we negotiate a better work-life balance?
Limiting the time we spend in paid work so that there is time left for a dignified life has long been a goal of working people. We can learn a lot from looking at the struggles and successes that have been waged and won around this key concern of a community economy.
Excerpt reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities by J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy. Copyright 2013 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. You can purchase this book from our store: Take Back the Economy.