Work is central to any society. Many, certainly in developed nations, question the validity of the notion of work. After all, don’t we dream of an island life, cocktail in hand, footloose and fancy free? How would we fund such a lavish occasion without first having earned the money to pay for it? Work has evolved throughout centuries from forming the basis of an agrarian society to a capitalist one. With a transition from the production of necessities consumed by oneself or production of surplus, consumed by others. Through observing a work deficit, welfare States a changing labour force and a capitalist economy we begin to unravel the complexities of the role of work in modern society.
A work deficit
With the global economy at an all time low, families across the world suffered incredibly during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. With people being laid off and not enough work, people’s living standards dropped dramatically with many unable to afford basic necessities. I recall the story of my 95-year-old grandfather, who starving at the time, was caught stealing a few potatoes and running across the rail tracks. Juxtaposed to my current situation where most days include a lavish meal with friends at a trendy establishment. In the developed world unemployment is relatively low with most members of society able to participate actively in the workforce. This in turn increases living standards and the ability to afford to maintain material subsistence.
In developing countries many jump at the opportunity to undertake any form of paid labour (hence increased sex work and slavery), while work opportunities are rare. In Australia there are increasing numbers of internships being taken by students in order to get ahead and get their first break. The sad reality is that many of the popular employers harvesting this unpaid labour can afford it. When you think of slicing a tiny percentage from one person’s bonus that could probably pay an intern for a year it begs the question, are internships fair? How do we as a collective balance too much work with not enough work? These examples illustrate the importance of a stable economy in not only producing excess but simply creating paid employment for people to maintain material subsistence.
Support from the State
Welfare States across the world are characterised by the measures with which any Government allocates taxes in order to support its citizens. In Sweden we see a society safeguarded on many levels by the lenient tax system affording many Swedes reasonably priced childcare, sickness benefits and retirement fund models. In contrast, Australia is a ‘wage earner welfare state’ based on the stale concept of a nuclear family, with male breadwinner financially supporting his family while women typically care for the home and family. Welfare is distributed when citizens of a society cannot work. Possibly due to illness, misfortune, trouble securing work, retirement or incentives to care for family members and reduce time spent working.
While the age-old debate over ‘lifters vs. learners’ continues, it should be noted that work benefits citizens beyond the financial return. Work brings routine, discipline, respect and drives self-actualisation through interacting with various people and situations outside your normal lifestyle. The concept of valuing what you spend if you have earned it is too beneficial. Studies have shown that those who are employed are less likely to engage in anti social behaviour. This can range from unlawful activity (crime, drugs) to unhealthy pastimes that can lead to a deterioration in healthy both physical and mental, thus causing a raft of direct public health costs. Of course it can be argued that overworking is detrimental to health, on the whole, not working where you are not incapacitated, is more detrimental.
The changing labour force
The reality in the modern world is that women no longer need to rely on men to financially support them, divorce is on the rise and there are same sex marriages, single mothers and even single fathers. It is estimated women will acquire considerably less superannuation than men due to the role they take on as caregiver when they bear children. Is all of the cooking, cleaning, caring for children and potentially partners factored by the State? After all, we do still require a labour force to be produced in order to ensure labour productivity and a stable economy.
Due to WWII and the birth of the baby boomers our population and resources will be skewed toward retirees over the next few years. It will be important for retirees to have access to pensions and sufficient superannuation funds. This a policy masterstroke by the Labour Government ensuring that citizens are forced to save a portion of their salary across their lifetime in order to reduce the pressure on the welfare system come retirement. Technology has certainly created a shift from the industrial economy to a service economy. While many complain that they have lost their jobs e.g. car manufacturers, while being replaced by machines it could be argued many jobs have been created, particularly in the technology sector. If you can’t stop technological progress it appeals the solution is to embrace it.
The more you earn, the more you burn
Its human nature to never be satisfied. I have personally experienced the same ability to enjoy life whether being paid a nominal fee or a competitive full time salary. You seem to find more things you don’t need to purchase with a ‘surplus’. Financial speculation can drastically increase income based on speculation and little labour productivity, which becomes detrimental to income equality. Consider the wealthiest few people earning more than millions of Australians. So is this race to enjoy a high salary really worth it after all? I am another living experiment of work life balance. After having worked many a full time role I fell into a four day work week and boy has it been refreshing. For what has been largely an incremental decrease in salary I find myself able to do the things we as a society enjoy, such as caring for my grandfather, enjoying the fresh air and achieving self-actualisation through more reading and writing.
Can’t live with it, can’t live without it…
So it would appear that work is a valuable component of any society. Whether it affects social cohesion through a work deficit as seen throughout the Great Depression or whether citizens need to rely on the Welfare state to support material subsistence. It has been proven that work ismore bountiful than simply being a mechanism to earn a living. It unleashes potential, brings order, routine and discipline and can ensure we cherish time off and don’t take our freedom for granted. This of course not always the case when corporations are overworking people. We see a changing role in the labour force that includes the changing role of women, an ageing population and the rise in technology. Respective policies such as Australia’s wage earner welfare state largely founded on the basis of the nuclear family must be revitalised to reflect the changing nature of the labour force.
We must support policy instruments such as superannuation to eventually support retirement. Finally we must adapt and embrace with the birth of new technologies and their effects on the labour force and work. Society should analyse the effects of a capitalist ideal and consider the collectivist notion that includes spending more time caring for friends and family (and oneself) and less time supporting the pursuit of profit. Working is ideal to ensure a stable standard of living and of the formulation of oneself, however, it’s when the balance begins to erode the sense of self and supporting others that we should really question our approach to work.