The Great Resignation. The first unionised Amazon branch. A four day week. Remote and hybrid work. The way we work is radically changing for the better. Even before the pandemic, the modern workplace was not working for so many. In fact, one of the top 5 regrets of the dying is that they wished that they hadn’t worked so hard. So, what does the future of work hold in a green and sustainable world?
“Get your f**king ass up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days” – Kim Kardashian
OK, so we now know that Kardashian was actually getting fired up about influencers who want all the benefits of that Instagram life without putting in the graft. But, she caused a huge stir with those comments and for good reason. The cost of living is skyrocketing and people are working multiple jobs to make ends meet. CEOs are taking home record-breaking pay packets while workers are still battling for a $15 minimum wage. It’s not that no one “wants to work”, it’s more a case that people are done with work dominating their entire lives. The future of work needs to address growing inequality and put health and wellbeing first.
The way we work is not working
Sometimes it feels that work culture is going backwards. In the past century or so, considerable progress has been made – weekends, 8 hour days, lunch breaks, parental leave, annual leave, health and safety. But some of the benefits are now being eroded by the gig economy and “always-on” email culture. Burnout is on the rise. Healthcare workers and teachers are suffering the most extreme effects of working conditions during the pandemic. The hustle culture that Kardashian subscribes to is grinding us down and stealing our joy in the name of wealth accumulation.
It’s tempting to spend a lot of time examining all of the ways in which the way we work is wrong. Instead, let’s take a look at some headlines statistics that paint a pretty vivid picture and then dive headfirst into radical reimagining.
> According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) productivity has grown six times as much as pay over the last 40 years in the US
> The UK is facing its biggest drop in living standards on record as wages remain stagnant, whilst inflation soars to record 30 year high of 8%
> American CEOs make 351 times more than workers. (In 1965 it was 15 to one.)
> A pre-pandemic study on working culture in 69 cities from 53 countries found that city workers in Asia and the US experience a high level of burnout
> The US is the only OECD country without a national statutory paid maternity, paternity or parental leave
Bread and roses
It started when Chris Smalls led a walkout in March 2020 when workers complained about unsafe working conditions and a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) at Amazon. For two years, Small and his co-organiser Derrick Palmer led a campaign to unionise Amazon staff. Smalls and Palmer utilised grassroots tactics to win over their co-workers. They organised cookouts and GoFundMe pages for their colleagues. And it paid off. The pair signed up more than 4,000 employees and won a historic staff vote to establish Amazon’s first-ever union. “The revolution is here”, as Smalls said.
Historically, unions have been a game-changer for workers. They secured, and standardised, better pay, shorter working hours, paid time off, paternal leave, better working conditions, health and safety. However, safe conditions and appropriate compensation are just the beginning. The bare minimum, even. The future of work looks like real work-life balance. It presents opportunities to excel, to explore our skills and talents. It’s a work environment where people can thrive and have enough time left in the day to live a full and healthy life.
“We want bread. We also want roses.” – demands of the striking women of the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts
“Union-busting” is as old as unions and sadly, still prevalent today. Ever since employees began organising, bosses have enforced tactics to create division. This often includes harassment and the threat of dismissal.
Clamping down on workers’ attempts to unionise is rampant in the garment industry. This is especially harmful because the workforce is primarily made up of poor women from the Global South, an already oppressed and exploited group. In case you needed another reason to swerve fast fashion, this report found that factories supplying fashion brands used COVID-19 as a cover to crack down on trade unions.
When Smalls led that first walkout at Amazon, his management fired him the same day as the protest for allegedly breaking COVID protocol. In addition to Smalls’ unfair dismissal, Amazon quickly mobilised with a deluge of anti-union messaging.
When we think about the future of work, the first thing that springs to mind is often technology. Advancements in technology and education should enable us to work less. Yet, we find ourselves working more and more and finding balance nigh on impossible to achieve.
When new technology is rolled out, it can often mean an initial loss of jobs as machines take over the work that humans used to do. However, we still need people to operate and maintain machinery. New jobs are soon created as we adapt to the latest processes.
Video meetings have existed for over a decade but the pandemic and remote working saw them become the norm and begin to evolve in attempts to recreate the connection of in-person interactions. Apps like Zoom and Teams brought out new features for personalisation and gamification. Now, new on the scene Topia and Spatial are taking it to the next level with more interactive virtual-reality style features to create online social spaces.
The possibilities of tech are infinite but as we have seen, tech does not always improve our working styles. The future of work will require embracing not only new tech but new ways of thinking, too.
A lot of us had our doubts about working from home when pandemic measures were put in place. We tentatively emptied our lockers and packed up our laptops. We bid farewell to the offices we were accustomed to seeing daily. We’ll be back in a few weeks when everything blows over, we thought. Loved it or hated it, remote working is here to stay. The future of work is more likely to be a hybrid of remote and office-based jobs.
Of course, during the pandemic and lockdowns, we were not working from home in a “normal” way. Kids were home due to school closures. Almost all activities were cancelled. Cooped up inside, we communicated with the outside work through blue-lit screens. Our days were filled with work – paid and unpaid – and very little leisure or real rest.
Now, as measures are lifting, many bosses are keen for workers to return to the office where they can keep a watchful eye. But workers are not exactly rushing back to sweaty commutes, expensive plastic-wrapped lunches and sterile workspaces.
The beauty of remote working is that you don’t just have to choose between home and the office, you can work from anywhere you want. More and more people are opting to become ‘digital nomads’, choosing to move locations to allow them to travel. Bali, a long-beloved haven for digital nomads recently announced a new 5-year working visa to attract more people seeking the remote working lifestyle there. All income earned from work outside Bali will be tax-free (a discussion for another day!).
Making workplaces accessible for people with disabilities will benefit everyone. This is another example of how a marginalised group is hit first, and hardest, by systems that have gone awry. Long hours, no flexibility and an expectation to “suck it up” take their toll on all of us eventually. For those of us without a disability, we may be able to endure overwork for longer than our disabled colleagues but it catches up to everyone eventually. The prevalence of work-related stress and burnout is evidence enough.
Fixing our workplaces and making them truly accessible for disabled employees, means reasonable accommodations for the individual. This includes flexible work hours and remote working. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all witnessed how many of us needed those kinds of provisions and how much we have benefitted from them.
The reality is, that we all have needs. People with disabilities have specific needs and have the right to request reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Parents have childcare needs. Carers have needs. We all have different circumstances and we all have needs. If employers trusted employees, we would have a fairer and more functional workplace.
Are we working harder than medieval peasants?
A full-time employee in the US works an average of 1,801 hours per year. According to research, the average adult male peasant in 13th-century England clocked up around 1,620 hours annually. With all our industrial and technological “advances”, this is a mindboggling discovery.
The 40-hour week was fought hard for by unions. But even that is out of date. It was designed for men who were the sole breadwinners. Ths assumption being that he had a wife at home looking after the home and their children. Now, with women in the workforce, we are all juggling our 40-hour week with housework, caring responsibilities and “life admin”. In addition to this, commute times have gotten progressively longer which eats even further into our day.
The future of work should allow us to live slower lives, more in tune with the natural rhythms and seasons of nature. Fewer hours spent working is more time spent creating, upcycling, growing gardens of food and flowers, being resourceful, walking and cycling. A slow life is not compatible with a 40-hour working week. It brings with it all the things we need to leave behind – rushing, cars, convenience, fast food, fast fashion, instant gratification and quick fixes to preserve what little free time we have available.
A four day week
Moving to a 32 hour week, with four days on and three days, off has been gaining traction, especially now in the wake of the pandemic. Advocates for a four day week say that it will benefit everyone – workers, employers, the economy, our society and our environment.
Workers will enjoy a better work-life balance and an additional day to rest, pursue hobbies and manage their responsibilities at home. This in turn will benefit employers as their staff’s increased well-being leads to an increase in productivity.
It also looks like great news for the planet. As well as workers being able to reduce their carbon footprint, an extra day off also provides more time to take slower, greener options instead of choosing convenience.
Sex work is real work, and real work sucks
Though it may come as a surprise to some, sex workers (SW) and labour unions have a long history of working together. Sex work, labour unions and feminism are all deeply intertwined. SWs have also been at the forefront of social justice movements like LGBTQIA+ rights and protesting against police violence. When we talk about the future of work, SWs must be included in the conversation.
SWs are campaigning to secure the same kinds of legal rights and protections as workers in other industries. While some people are forced into sex work because they have no other options the truth is, many choose it over minimum wage jobs. There are many things we could put in place that we result in fewer people seeing sex work as the only or best option. Social welfare, flexible work, a higher minimum wage, affordable child care, trauma-informed social services, and properly funded drugs and alcohol treatment.
Who is more exploited? The sex worker who chooses their own hours, clients and sets their own rates or the delivery driver on a zero-hours contract making minimum wage at a company that disregarded COVID safety measures in the interest of profit? The answer to that is a matter of opinion. Regardless of why someone is in sex work, the fact remains that they are engaged in a form of paid labour and they deserve the same labour and human rights as anyone else. From street workers to strippers to cam girls to escorts, every sex worker has a right to dignity and protection.
Universal basic income
Millions of people’s labour are required to create wealth. Right now, too much of that wealth is being hoarded by top-level management and company directors. It is a moral imperative that wealth is shared with the people who helped create it. The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is not a new one. The future of work could look like a state-wide basic income for everyone, with our jobs simply supplementing that. UBI doesn’t function as a pathway to wealth and excess, it is there to stop people from falling below the poverty line.
If new technology means that companies are still able to make huge profits but need fewer workers, then a lot fewer employees will be needed across the board. Less labour means less employment. Rather than allow this to create an unemployment crisis and subject millions of people to poverty, a universal basic income (UBI) can ensure that people work less without the risk of being plunged into poverty.
A 4 day week, or potentially even less, makes space for more workers. In addition to UBI, strong social welfare states provide free or very affordable education, childcare, and healthcare that supports people’s well-being and ensure no one goes into debt or falls below the breadline just trying to meet their basic needs.
A fairer “slicing of the pie” could also be achieved by restructuring businesses so that workers also become shareholders. Co-operative companies do this successfully. Interestingly, Chinese tech giant Huawei recently made headlines when they shared over £7billion of dividends with 131,000 employees.
Purpose > productivity
Democracy under Capitalism is not a true democracy. This is never more evident than when we look at how we work and the limited freedom of choice we often face. Employment under Capitalism is inherently exploitative. People are only able to access things they need to survive if they can pay for them. Nature gives us everything we need, sunlight, water, food, and shelter. Concepts like land ownership, for example, have commodified the very things we need to keep us alive.
We can vastly improve our work lives within Capitalism, as demonstrated by the examples above. Changing how we work is a fundamental part of changing old systems that are no longer serving us.
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