Saturday, March 5, 2011

A sustainable labour market

The labour market, and also labour market policies, today aren't really working. In many (Western) countries, unemployment rates are rising, there is a worrying shift in demographics where it seems a shrinking work force are required to provide services (as well as taxed labour) to an growing number of retirees, increased automatization as well as relocation ("outsourcing") of jobs are removing work opportunities. At the same time, overtime is increasing (and recently the government has even suggested that it become easier to order overtime), the wage gap between low and high income jobs increases, and cheap oil - a prerequisite for much of the aformentioned automatization - seem to be becoming a thing of the past.
Our current Swedish government seem to have a couple of ideas to counter this. I believe most of them are seriously misguided, and even counter-productive or downright dangerous.

What seems to be the most important tactic is the so-called "work line". This is an old idea in Swedish politics, originally championed by the Social Democrats in the early half of the 20th century. In our current, right-wing, government's version this amounts to providing incentive to get a job, preferrably "qualified" work involving a long education and yielding high income. It is also meant to discourage people from being unemployed - when unemployment benefits are too high, many people rather stay unemployed than get a job. Or so the thinking goes. That might be a valid argument if we didn't have record-high unemployment, but as it is, being unemployed isn't exactly a matter of choice.

There is another idea here as well. Lower income taxes, which is what is done to provide the incentive, supposedly leaves more money over for consumption. The increase in consumption is meant to lead to an increase in production, which in turn is meant to ensure an increase in work opportunities. Whether this policy even leads to an increase in consumption not might be debated - I would argue that it is only true for the higher income bracket, since for the rest any "extra money in the pocket" goes towards higher costs elsewhere - but it does amount to an increase in consumption and this raises two issues. First, a lot of people choose not to spend that extra money, rather they save it for unforeseen expenses. Second, an economy based on increasing consumption is one of the prime underlying causes of our current global economic and ecological crisis.

Obviously, in a global economy, it isn't even certain (or even likely) that an increase in domestic consumption will lead to an increase in domestic production jobs.

A third reasoning behind these policies has been more or less hinted at, and that is to lower the wage cost for employers. Lower income taxes mean that employers can get away with lower wage raises. Also, with a growing number of people to recruit from, what we get is a "buyer's market" when it comes to hiring workers. This is added to by suggestions from the government that our minimum wage is set too high, thus creating a threshold for entry to the labour market.

What we are left with is a labour policy which is ecologically unsustainable in that it is entirely based on increased consumption and production. It is socially unsustainable in that it actively promotes inequality and increased wage gaps, in order to create "incentive". It might, however, be economically sustainable given our current economic system. The problem is that our entire current economic system is an ecologically and socially unsustainable pyramid scheme.

It also strikes me as odd that the only part of these policies which is sustainable is the one which pertains to the economic system, which is the one system we could actually change if wanted to (unlike the ecological system, which is our primary system or realm of existence - and to some extent also the social system).

Are there alternatives then? I believe so. We need to rethink our view of the labour market, shift away from an economy based on the twin-engine of consumption-production and start taking ecological and social sustainability seriously. This also means taking solidarity seriously, a solidarity stemming from the realisation that we are all connected.

So what does this mean? For starters, work needs to be shared. In a short-term perspective, this will most likely mean more people working fewer hours - although once oil prices spike, we might need to increase the workload somewhat, to counter the loss of "energy slaves", at least until we have been able to shift from a fossil-based economy (and this shift will bring about other massive changes).

We need to re-evaluate a lot of non-wage labour. Today a lot of work is being done outside the visible labour market, primarily "household work", and a lot of jobs are seriously undervalued, in particular "care work". This must change, and it would also mean a shift from energy intensive production work (such as manufacture of home electronics or the weapons industry) to work requiring little or no energy (such as repairs, recycling, child care and so on). Not only would this be a positive development when it comes to the labour market, but also other areas such as resource use and a shift from dominator to partnership ideals.

When it comes to re-evaluating wage labour, especially with regards to "household work", the Swedish government has launched one initiative - tax breaks for utilising household services. However, the way this is done almost entirely benefits those with high incomes. I suspect this is due to the simulatenous erosion of solidarity, where we are made to think only of ourselves and our own wallet - being told that solidarity is paramount to communism, unless it is solidarity with a very narrow and limited scope. It is as if these so-called "liberals" have confused the emphasis on individual rights with a sole focus on individuals, ignoring and striving to get rid of the communal. But just as a community cannot exist without individuals, so an individual cannot exist without a community.

We also need to stop trying to change people in order to make them fit in a rigid labour market. Rather, we ought to look to change the labour market so that it suits the people. This is one thing I find especially puzzling. A supposedly liberal government wants to impose change on people, rather than the market (which is really just a convenient tool invented by people to serve the interest of those same people). Not saying that people shouldn't have responsibilities, but the balance definitely needs to shift here.

I want to suggest two books, from where I've taken a lot of inspiration and which discuss these topics at great lengths and a lot more lucidly and elegantly than could ever hope to. First, there's Fritjof Capra's "Hidden Connections" which successfully adapts Capra's systemic view of (biological) life to include the (uniquely?) human social dimension. Second, there's Riane Eisler's "The Real Wealth of Nations", which sketches an alternative to our current economic dogma, emphasising partnership rather than domination.

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