I don’t want work to go back to normal

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I have been thinking about work. I am aware that there are quite a lot of people of my age who do so, and decide it is no longer for them. It is partly because I recently saw a pension adviser that this issue has been more prominent for me of late. Well, that and the fact that I have sons looking for summer holiday employment in the time honoured student fashion. Both perspectives, and others, make me realise how difficult our relationship with work is.

Let’s not avoid the fact that work is a necessity. If we define it as the tasks we must undertake to ensure our sufficient survival then almost everyone excepting the very young and those with the greatest disability have work that they can do.

Much will not be remunerated. That does not mean it is not work. For far too long this paid / unpaid divide has been used to deny the greater contribution that women make to overall work output, much of it usually grossly under-rewarded.

Much too will be unfulfilling. I know no one who can say all aspects of their work give them a buzz. Some tasks simply have to be done. Finding a balance is the best that can be hoped for.

Balance is hard to secure. That’s not least because the world of work is so intensely rigid. As someone who has done his best to avoid full time employment by any singular organisation throughout the vast majority of my career (hence my need for a pension adviser to sort out the resulting mess now) I admit that I find it hard to comprehend the reality of working for just one organisation.

The fact that work is, very often, about full time employment means that many feel ensnared by it.

Others use the fact that working in this way requires an unusual, monogamous, commitment that many find hard as a mechanism for securing their own advancement. By identifying with their employer they are promoted when others, equally able, may not be.

Work is, then, about status. It occurs to me as I begin to see my generation retire that this loss of status is a big issue for many of them. Appending the word ‘retired’ to whatever their former work role might have been appears a way of clinging to that status. That they might be liberated from it takes getting used to.

But suppose we could do that? Suppose we could identify ourselves beyond our work? Why can’t we identify ourselves by our passions? That thought occurred to me when noting a young trainee doctor win The Sewing Bee this week. ‘Doctor’ will remain her chosen identity, I am sure. ‘Phenomenally good sewer’ will always be sidelined, I suspect. And yet in the hobbies I have I see people with skills that probably far surpass those that they take to their workplaces, so good are they at what they have chosen to do. Why can’t we recognise that?

Why note all this when I am only too aware that I said to a potential funder last week that in my own case quite where the boundary between work and hobby might be is fairly hard to determine? Because that is, I think, something more need to enjoy.

We know that four day working weeks increase productivity whilst those enjoying them are at work. We know in that case that they are not as costly as the accountant applying a linear relationship between pay and output might think. And we know that those on four day weeks do enjoy better health. I strongly suspect that is because those enjoying them do better work in their own time to sustain themselves, without even recognising much of it as such.

Do we need to rethink work? Surely Covid has taught us that in a way few other disruptions might have? My sincere hope is that work will not go back to normal. Whilst wanting work for all who want it, work need not be the absolute that for too long it has been.

I am not suggesting I have all the answers on this. I don’t, and nor am I saying my own experience is one to replicate as it clearly won’t suit all. But nor does work as it is suit a great many people. For something so important we require better models than we have which can still be sufficient to maintain life as we want it.

Beating rentier capitalism is a necessary condition for better work. The yoke of debt burdens have to be reduced to make better work possible. But it’s not a sufficient condition. The rest is down to us to reimagine the processes. Indeed, that task might come first so that we have a goal to achieve. It seems to me that this is critical to our path to a better future.