Introducing The Work Project: Reimagining Work and Life

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Image: Hilary Cottam

By Hilary Cottam

This is the first blog in a new series about the future of work. The series reflects on workshops that were held in five locations across Britain over the past two years. The project has been generously funded by the Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundation and James Anderson.

I ’m currently working on work. I have been running a series of design workshops in five locations across Britain asking: what does a good working life look like in this century? And how could we organise to get there: to make good working lives a reality for the many?

Participants — about 200 people to date — have come from all walks of life: carers, nurses, grave diggers, nuclear weapon makers, digital entrepreneurs, academics, mechanics, gig workers, those just starting again after a life of addiction or domestic abuse and many more.

In this blog series I want to share — in rather rough and ready form — a set of early ideas emerging from this work. The broad (sometimes unexpected) view of a good life and the design code for a new institution that could transform work and its place in our lives.

Why work?

I have spent decades working on the redesign of welfare systems. These systems have an assumption at their heart: good work. It is presumed that welfare systems will support us if we get into trouble and that these same systems, in the form of education, will prepare us for work, but that most of what we need — the foundational things — will come from decently paid, predictable work.

What happens when the foundation stone — decent work — slips away? This is today’s reality.

Millions work for long hours in jobs that no longer pay enough to keep a family fed, warm and secure. Many others do have good work — work that is decently paid, dependable and interesting — but they feel intense stress as they try to juggle the demands of modern employment with a longing for that spontaneous moment to read a book, see friends, or perhaps supervise a child’s homework.

The World Health Organisation reports that work is killing us. And the evidence suggests that many of us want to think again about work. The Covid-19 pandemic for example has given birth to a so-called Great Resignation. For a while at least, those who can have voted with their feet, choosing to leave their jobs, reduce their hours, move home and change the way they live. Another response has been to talk a lot about work. In recent years there has been a flourishing of books, op-ed pieces and conferences dedicated to the subject.

Many things strike me about this renewed interest in work. One is that the voices of workers themselves are largely absent. Another is that the tone is all too often one of nostalgia or doom — perhaps not surprising given the changes we are living through, but I think an error nonetheless. Perhaps most troubling is the narrow and technocratic nature of these conversations which somehow overlook the dramatic changes in economic and social context.

The bigger context: technology change, ecological crisis and the need to address injustice

The technology revolution is changing the structure of our economies, our societies and our communities. This revolution is simultaneously creating huge wealth and possibility in some areas whilst dis-figuring and hollowing out others.

The technology revolution is of course closely entangled with our looming ecological crisis — in part a legacy of the previous industrial revolution, in part a product of current inventions and their (our) insatiable demand for materials and modern mining in dizzying forms. The carbon cost of Ronaldo posting a photograph to his 199.2 million Instagram followers is 30 megawatt hours, the equivalent to the energy used by three US households over an entire year. The development of artificial intelligence (AI) is generating exponential demands for energy. New forms of communication from phones to cars are triggering demands for rare minerals. It is estimated we will need 60 times more lithium by 2050 to power the next generation of electric vehicles, but lithium mining is one of the most difficult, exploitative forms of work in the world and is already associated with ecosystem devastation.

And below all this the steady thrum of injustice, the complex legacies of previous revolutions that created wealth for some through the exploitation of others, bodies that we usually could not/would not see. In the industrial revolution, slavery provided a source of fungible wealth that slave owners used to invest in new technology, technology which in turn often virtually enslaved industrial workers. These legacies go unaddressed even as new forms of exploitation are created today: the iPhone for example made in conditions that make it little more than a dis-embodied slave in your pocket or the care worker that tends to others for derisory wages. These are inequalities of geography, race and gender. Women, Black and Brown people and in particular Black and Brown women earn less, and are most likely to work in situations of precarity, danger and often degradation.

Our survival depends on recognising that the context in which we work has fundamentally changed. We need to find new ways to live and work. And it is increasingly clear that none of us can do this alone. Here are five reasons why I think we can and should reimagine work.

Five reasons to reimagine

1. The 20th century was not the best we can do. Whilst many of those planning, writing and making policy are aiming towards precisely this, millions more are imagining new forms of economy that emphasise co-operation and regeneration as opposed to extraction: Attachment Economics (Prendergast 2021), Restoration Economics (Raworth 2017; Bauwens 2019; Beinhocker 2007), the Foundational Economy, the work of the Women’s Budget Group, of scholars such as Ostrom 2010; Folbre 1994; Waring 1988; Mazzucato 2018; Kelton 2020; and Perez are shaping an alternative future. This new thinking brings a focus on place, knits together a wider socio-political-economic agenda and implicitly asks new questions about work: what is good work, for who and for what purpose?

2. Good work and good lives are about more than money. Existing notions of good work are narrowly focused on material gain. Homo economicus was an archetype developed in the industrial revolution. He is the template on which our economic policy is based: the idea that any work is better than no work, that economic growth must be prioritised above everything else regardless of the consequences — those ‘negative externalities’ such as air pollution or mental illness, that are excluded from traditional economic modelling but which lead to the degradation of people and places. Most of us do not recognise ourselves as homo economicus: the solitary, rational, calculating male motivated solely by a need to maximise personal economic gain. Today we long for lives rich in connection, capability and multiple forms of abundance: we are what Anne-Marie Slaughter and I have called sapiens integra. This longing we feel to live differently is increasingly backed up by research from fields as diverse as neuro-science, physics, biology and sociology. These intellectual developments show that we are neither selfish nor rationally driven, rather we become who we are in relationship to one another. Ideas of kinship that extend to wider living systems provide a rich resource for reimagining work and its purpose.

3. Challenges of transition. Few people now expect a job for life, but education systems largely still resemble the industrial institutions designed for the last revolution and pathways for transition are tenuous and difficult to navigate. People want second chances but they are hard to find. The climate emergency is going to intensify the need for transitions in ways we have not yet fully understood and we are certainly not designing for. Bringing down emissions in the next decade, let alone reaching net zero by 2050 means that much well-paid work will have to cease whilst other occupations that are currently low paid and shunned — care for example, must become core to our new economies. Both the US and UK bear the financial and emotional scars of the last unplanned transition (the deindustrialisation of the 1980s). We need to do it differently this time. A just transition offers hope for richer lives.

4. Work organisations are struggling. It is impossible to imagine the gains that were made in the last century: regulated hours, work safety, wages, welfare systems, without the work of the industrial Trade Unions. These organisations are still securing good work for some but membership is waning in the UK and the US. Hierarchical institutions organised around stratifications of task and job are finding it hard to respond to the three big challenges outlined (technology, climate and injustice). Perhaps we should not be surprised. As mass production took hold, workers no longer expected the guilds to protect them and the industrial Trade Unions were born. Thinking again about work, means thinking again about work institutions: about what we need to design now to create today’s change. This will be the subject of my fifth blog.

5. Technology revolutions create rupture and opportunity. In her ground-breaking work on technology revolutions, Carlota Perez shows us how each revolution brings — after a period of instability –profound gains for successive layers of workers.

Perez, Carlota and Murray-Leach, Tamsin (2018) “Smart & Green: A New ‘European Way of Life’ as the Path for Growth, Jobs and Wellbeing “

The second technology revolution (steam) lifted the educated service providers; the third (steel and heavy engineering) added those highly skilled in chemicals, construction, steel, machinery and white-collar employees in professional positions (managers, journalists, etc.). In the fourth (the previous mass production revolution) blue collar workers were able to live better lives.

There are two important caveats to this story. First, there is a hidden underside. The lives of some — in the case of the last revolution, unionised, male workers from the global North — have flourished on the backs of others, creating the injustices I refer to above. Secondly, these gains are not automatic — this is not technological determinism. These gains come about through the hard work of movement building, protest, new alliances, imagination and experimentation.

A collaborative project of the imagination

Imagination is the critical first step. We cannot bring about change until we can collectively imagine it. And it matters who imagines.

In the Work Project I centre worker voices. By workers, I mean those of us who live from our labour paid or unpaid, as opposed to those who live on rent, inheritance or any other form of unearned income. It is my experience that the richest imaginings will come from those of us who work and that those who have the hardest work or face the toughest challenges often have the most creative ideas to offer.

The workshops produced radical new ideas about time (will which be the subject of the second blog in this series); and about the need rethink care, by which I do not predominantly mean the need to have new care services — although these are vital, but rather the need to rethink the boundaries that have been erected between paid work and all those other activities on which a good life and our survival depend (which will be the subject of the third blog).

In the face of techno-economic change and a looming climate catastrophe many want to think again about what they do. Designing a just transition will be the subject of the fourth blog. I asked workshop participants to design an organisation that could underpin and make possible the ‘good working life’. In the fifth blog I will look at the designs and consider this set of new ideas in a broader historical context of work organising. I will consider the role of capital in the sixth blog. Historically, enlightened business leaders working at the forefront of new technology have played a key role in reshaping the social contract: can we expect business leaders today to step up? In the final blog I will go behind the scenes sharing the workshop process in more detail: who I worked with and why, and how I designed the process.

I hope you will join me every week. And I would love to hear from others who are imagining or experimenting along similar lines.

Hilary Cottam is a social activist, the author of Radical Help and an Honorary Professor at UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose @hilarycottam

The Work Project is made possible by a grant from Laudes Foundation. I’m grateful to the Open Society Foundation and to James Anderson for financial support which funded the workshops in five UK locations between 2020 and 2021 and I would like to thank the workshop participants and my local hosts in Barking, Barnsley, Barrow, East Ayrshire, Grimsby and Peckham.