• Emilie Tricarico

The post-work vision: a necessary transition for a sustainable economy

The premise of a post-work future has recently made various appearances throughout the media thanks to think tanks like the New Economic Foundation and Autonomy in the UK, and academics and authors like Rutger Bregman (Utopia for Realists). Their work seeks to revive the ideas of 20th Century economists like John Maynard Keynes, André Gorz and John Stuart Mill.

The basic premise behind this concept is a rethinking of work through a re-conception of what work means, what forms it takes and what place it is given in our modern societies. The rationale is multi-fold. First of all, it is about recognising the deep crisis facing modern work. Not only are our economies riddled with unemployment - especially among the youth - but work is also increasingly precarious and insufficient to support peoples' living costs. The rise of the gig economy, which has contributed to the professions of self-employed deliverers or taxi drivers working under exploitative conditions is a particularly good example of how problematic work has become.

Work is equally facing a moral crisis where jobs are increasingly void of purpose, what anthropologist David Graeber describes as "bullshit jobs". The corporate sector is full of these jobs with new fancy titles, such as telemarketers, PR researchers or lobbyists. It seems as if we have created a new form of alienation, which is no longer characteristic with the physically harsh and routine manual labour of century-old factories, but one that involves mindless tasks behind operations that do not produce any tangible results other than simply contributing to the accumulation of profits. More than a socio-economic attribute, work has turned into an ideology. Our professions dictate our social status. Our value is measured by how much and how hard we work. It is indeed proven that we are now working more than some decades ago when labour unions fought for better working conditions and granted people the right for vacations and a reduced working week. Rather than using the economic benefits of labour productivity growth to allow people more free time, the increase in productivity has been used to maximise monetary gains for the capitalist class.

The crisis of work is having many indirect effects from mental and psychological ill-health - burnouts, depressions and so forth - to unsustainable consumption practices, as we have less and less time to do things for ourselves. While these symptoms should be detrimental to the prosperity of our economies, they rather ironically contribute to the growth-led incentive that drives neoliberal capitalism by pushing people to seek meaning in mindless consumption habits.

While common discourse about the threat of automation is raising the alarm about the potential end of work, in which robots and machines are pushing workers out of their professions, a post-work alternative is actually about embracing a future where automation - if reclaimed from capitalists interests - can help free people from the current alienation of modern work. In this sense, the post-work vision is essentially about creating an emancipatory future while striving for the equal redistribution of work among society through policy instruments, such as universal basic income and work-time reduction. A post-work future calls for what economist André Gorz named a "politics of time", whereby people would be granted the capacity to freely determine the nature of their time. Post-work politics are thus essentially about reconsidering what work is. While the prevailing conception of work is mainly synonymous with paid employment, a post-work vision refutes this binary conception between paid and unpaid labour and rather consider activities of social reproduction - i.e. care, voluntary and creative work - to be fundamental for the good functioning of our societies.

If the ideas behind post-work thinking could seem unrealistic in our modern societies obsessed with work and performance, they might become increasingly valuable as an answer to the present socio-ecological and economic crises we are facing. Rethinking work then should be seen as a priority if we want to achieve a real sustainable economy, as work is a central mechanism at the heart of our capitalist economies. Once reclaimed, it is up to us to turn it into a tool for radical social change and foster an emancipatory future.

Emilie Tricarico is a graduate of the Ecological Economics MSc program at the University of Leeds and a campaigner on environmental and social justice.