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Coronavirus has tested both the “business as usual” mantra and the work-life balance of many employees. With countries relying on big fiscal and monetary stimulus packages to see them through the crisis, the model of heavy workloads and high consumption underpinning growth-based economies is under scrutiny.

But these changes are just the start of a much bigger response to the environmental and social imperative to build a new economic order, based on shorter, more sustainable working practices, says Kate Soper, author of the recent book Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism.

Working to excess offers rewards but, as many have discovered during the pandemic, it can also damage mental and physical health. It also sustains environmentally damaging lifestyles and deprives people of the ability to develop creative pursuits. “A reduction in the working week will be something we must come to terms with and it’s gaining a certain kind of traction,” says Prof Soper, who is professor emeritus of philosophy at London Metropolitan University and a visiting professor at the University of Brighton.

So how do we rethink, revalue and reduce work? What is the interplay of individual trends and top-down policy that will drive eco-political change and how will some of the changes seen during the pandemic be extended beyond “knowledge” workers who have been able to work comfortably from home during the past year?

Commitments to community

“Alternative hedonism” is not a pursuit of the edgier aspects of rave culture, but what Prof Soper describes as “self-interested motivations for less environmentally destructive practices”, and the benefits that accrue from a rebalancing of work and consumption habits. With more free time, gardening, walking, cooking and even volunteering become alternative hedonism — heightened pursuits that, like arts and culture, can improve self-esteem and wellbeing.

Mark Banks, a professor of cultural economy at Glasgow university, says: “Definitely we should be looking to work less. Commitments to care, intimate life, leisure and community projects would all be enhanced.”

The transition to remote working has encouraged a boom in these activities. With reduced or more flexible workloads, tasks that the overworked previously contracted to the market such as childcare can also become cost-free and enjoyable pursuits.

There has been much discussion of the benefits of working from home but much less about the need to extend more flexible practices to all workers to reduce inequality and deliver on the wider promise of what Prof Soper calls an “alternative politics of prosperity”.

That shift requires us to make individual changes in our habits such as less air travel, as well as widespread use of policies that have so far often been discussed but rarely implemented such as the four-day week, greater protection for precarious workers and the unemployed, and ongoing dialogue between companies and unions to lock in the recent — and potential — changes to working habits.

“The pandemic won’t help us to green the economy but it will help us to build the politics,” Prof Soper says, citing the creation of new cycle lanes during lockdown that has driven demand for cycling. Prof Banks believes that the indicators of a successful society should be reassessed: “GDP is a failed metric. The pursuit of growth is destroying the planet. A green new deal can help with that.”

Make creatives key players

The creative industries illustrate both the potential and the pressures of rethinking work. Though the UK lauds the sector’s economic contribution, claiming £112bn in gross value added in 2018, Prof Soper says arts and humanities need to be restored to their “higher status” in education to increase their appeal. “People cannot be expected to relish the idea of more free time, and enjoy it in more eco-benign ways if they are not given cultural education.”

A £1.6bn package of relief for UK cultural and heritage organisations was announced in July, but experts are adamant that countries can and should increase funding. Prof Banks talks of the notion of “creative justice” and warns that “too many artists and organisations are forced to spend money and time on income generating activities [such as fundraising], and not on their core purpose — producing arts and culture.”

Before the pandemic local authorities had started to realise the benefits of funding the arts via, for example, repurposing disused buildings in distressed areas, as part of the drive to build viable “artisan economies” of localised creative enterprises. Yet after 2020’s ravages of the UK high street, the pressure has increased to reallocate funding away from these sorts of initiatives. A lack of affordable local premises or studio space is a compelling reason why many young people doubt whether they can risk pursuing a creative career.

Activist-artist Rachel Horne with drag-artist Bipolar Abdul at an event in Doncaster. © Warren Draper

Rachel Horne is a Yorkshire-based activist-artist who has helped Doncaster revitalise its town centre through a series of creative initiatives. She says she has “innovated a new way of living, doing and hustling” to succeed on her own terms and work in smarter ways that underpin her relationship with the local area.

“The internet has totally democratised the creative industries so it’s possible for anyone to take up a creative side-hustle and turn it into a business,” she says.

Creative freedom matters more than financial gain, she says: “I’ve seen lots of creative people do this in Doncaster despite all the trappings of being a post-industrial town. In regards to living expenses, as an artist — and not really a commercial one — I could afford to rent a two-bed house in the centre. I’m not living in luxury of course.”

Progressive working practices and ownership structures are a feature of the industry. Lucinda Broadbent, co-founder of Media Co-op, a not-for-profit film production, animation and design co-operative based in Glasgow, says companies should “prize sustainable working more highly than financial reward”.

“We do our best to practise equality at work. We decided to pay ourselves all the same salary, from manager to administrator. Most of us get less than the average salary for our industry, but the financial loss is more than balanced by knowing everyone in the company is equally valued.”

Representation matters

To increase equality, smarter working practices must be enjoyed by employees across all sectors, from currently non-unionised staff at platform companies such as Amazon or “contractor” drivers at Uber to those in key “foundational economy” sectors such as healthcare, education, housing, utilities and food supply.

Mark Bergfeld, a Brussels-based labour scholar, seeks organisational change. “We need democracy at work. There needs to be the right to organise workers and access workplaces. Every worker deserves a union.” Workers at Google parent Alphabet last week announced the formation of a union.

Ruled by algorithm and without the physical base of a factory floor or office, platform workers can find it difficult to organise. But there are moves to ensure collective rights in this sector. In the EU, French MEP Leila Chaibi has proposed a new directive that would align the rights of digital platform workers with all other workers.

Greater representation could also foster greener business practices. “The businesses which are the most anti-union also don’t care about the environment,” says Mr Bergfeld, highlighting the work of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, which urges the company to do more on environmental issues.

Yet there are wider challenges. Green energy producers, for example, have discouraged representation while unions themselves should be doing more to promote sustainable economies, Mr Bergfeld adds. “Not all unions are thinking in terms of the green renaissance. They need to be caught up in a rethinking of the function of work, and its rewards” — including the model of full employment, says Prof Soper.

Overall, improvements in one area can help in another: “Workers want to take action on climate and we can use that to renew the trade union movement,” adds Mr Bergfeld.

Work less and see the benefits?

Though all the necessary shifts on the scale required may take time, the conversation is growing around improving working lives and consumer habits. The pandemic has “opened up a debate about work as the sole means of providing entitlements to social goods”, says Prof Soper, insisting: “We do not qualify for public goods and services just through work.”

Economies are robust enough to cope with the necessary change, says Prof Banks: “A reduced working week, across all sectors, would likely bring multiple benefits, socially and culturally, without compromising effectiveness or productivity, as research has consistently shown.”

“It is true that we work too much and that despite us working so much, our economies aren’t growing or are even declining,” says Mr Bergfeld. “It is necessary that one job should be enough to pay the bills and that working time allows for other pursuits.”

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