Covid-19 and (less) work?

We’ll be happier and healthier once we reimagine work as no longer being at the centre of life, but as something that we do to create a better life for everyone

The dire economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have been felt perhaps most keenly at an individual level. In the UK, October 2020 saw the number of redundancies reach record levels, and the unemployment rate continues to rise sharply month on month.

Of course, one of the things that stopped the unemployment rate from skyrocketing in the early months of the pandemic was the UK government’s furlough scheme. While the scheme remains in place at the time of writing, it was nearly ended on a couple of occasions (most notably in October, when it was extended at the last-minute, despite the deadline having passed for many firms to notify staff of impending redundancies). The scheme, which at its peak covered some nine million people, is currently scheduled to end on 30 April 2021.

With so many of the UK’s workforce having been furloughed, we have been given a glimpse of what a society where income is not necessarily tied to work might look like. And yet, despite the fact that the scheme is set to run for at least a year, furlough is always something that is framed as a temporary stopgap to combat an economic emergency, rather than something that could be adapted to become a standard feature of the labour market. This doesn’t come just from our politicians; in May, The Times and the Spectator ran alarmist headlines declaring that workers were becoming ‘addicted’ to the furlough scheme and a life of leisure.

While this could not be further from the truth (for many workers, furlough pay did not allow them to cover their basic living expenses and fears of being made redundant became a major source of  anxiety for many workers), the framing of furlough as an addiction seemed to dismiss the notion that furlough could perhaps be a sustainable first step towards a more equitable working world.

In 2013, David Graeber published his viral polemic On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs in Strike! Magazine. The essay argues that as technology has prompted the disappearance of many jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural or domestic sectors, there has been a rise in the number of managerial and service-related positions. Graeber broadly classifies these jobs as ‘bullshit jobs’. Building on JM Keynes’ prediction that we would all be working 15 hour weeks by the millennium, Graeber argues that instead of us allowing technology to reduce the total working hours required for society to function so that we could spend more time on leisure and personal development, we have instead created a range of unnecessary roles and superfluous positions to fill the extra time we now have.

Many working in the corporate world – in managerial or service-based roles especially – might at first be inclined to disagree with Graeber. These jobs can be highly pressurised, and can cause significant stress and involve much overtime. And yet, people working in these roles might also reflect on how much of their time is taken up with meetings that might seem unnecessary, or with webinars and workshops that their seniors insist are important, but that really aren’t. People working in these roles must question how often they might be asked to do things that never ultimately come to anything, or whether they’re asked to produce 15 drafts of something only for the first version to be selected by superiors. The pressure might be real, but the need for it can often be artificial.

With Graeber’s ideas in mind, and with an acknowledgement of the possibilities the UK’s furlough scheme has opened up, the pandemic presents an opportunity for the world of work to be transformed into something which not only redresses societal inequalities, but which also effectively enables people to enjoy a better quality of life with increased leisure time.

How would this work? Many of the industries that are currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, including in the theatre, arts, entertainment, retail and hospitality sectors, all have tangible social benefits, and typically need workers on the ground in order to function. However, the reopening of these industries will not be enough to mitigate all the job losses that have been seen as a result of reduced economic activity throughout the pandemic. Additionally, the major shift towards working from home for many white collar workers has meant that jobs in occupations which traditionally served the vast army of city workers have become less sustainable in the long term, such as in catering, private transport and office maintenance. Although the government sought to counteract this problem by prematurely (and rather aggressively) urging workers to return to their offices, forcing workers to return when so many have been perfectly happy and productive while working at home seems unnecessary and counter-intuitive.

So, we may have to accept that fewer jobs will exist at the other end of this crisis than did at the start. But this does not mean that the focus going forward needs to be on job creation. There is no point in creating jobs for the sake of having jobs, just as there is no point in a worker producing materials for a project that are not necessary, simply because their line manager wants to fill that worker’s time. The furlough scheme has shown that income does not need to be tied to work – and this is a good lesson for us to take into the future.

While the pandemic has resulted in a global economic downturn, this does not mean that wealth is no longer being generated in the world. In fact, the world’s billionaires have seen their wealth rise by 27% in recent months, and a total of $2.2 trillion since April. Billionaires themselves are the best evidence that income (and resultant wealth) need not be tied to work. When there are people in this world holding down multiple jobs just to make ends meet, it makes no sense that there should be others who make what most people earn in a lifetime in just a few seconds.

What the existence of billionaires proves is that there is money enough to go round for everyone to live a comfortable life – it’s just that that money is highly unequally distributed, and is often erroneously linked to the idea that those who are wealthy only have their money because they ‘work hard’ or hold down more difficult and demanding jobs than lower earners do. How to redistribute that money is a discussion for another time, but the idea that we all need to work a certain amount of time or in certain types of jobs to live comfortably is a myth.

Instead, we need a refocus of our priorities in society. Rather than pushing for a society in which more jobs are created, we ought to be working out ways for people to receive a universal basic income while the active workforce splits the roles that actively need to be done between them. Many jobs that are currently voluntary (like mental health or suicide prevention helpline operators) are absolutely vital. With a universal basic income, people can take on these roles and know they will still be paid. A focus on the jobs that really need doing will enable people to retrain for roles that are necessary, and will give key work the respect it deserves. The ultimate aim of this should be to create a society where everyone can live comfortably and well, where the roles that need doing are filled, and where everyone works towards goals that benefit the common good and lead to genuine social improvement. And this way of working should hopefully lead to a society where time is no longer a precious commodity for the average worker, but becomes something that we can all take advantage of to open up more opportunities for interaction with family and friends and to have more time to enjoy our leisure pursuits. We’ll be happier and healthier once we reimagine work as no longer being at the centre of life, but as something that we do as needed (and only as needed) to create a better life for us all.

Of course, a people with time on their hands is also one which has the time to think, understand and organise. A thinking public is a public that can hold the government to account and ask tough questions – for example regarding the UK government’s payment of roughly £1.5 billion of taxpayer money to Tory-linked companies who had never previously been major government contractors. This may also be a reason for why there is always a focus on job creation and getting people to work, rather than on enabling people to live well and enjoy the leisure time that technology and mechanisation could afford.