Work and jobs: what’s the connection?

We’ve just received a massive leaflet eulogising Liverpool’s mayor: ‘Making good on jobs pledge’. Apparently ‘Liverpool is in pole position for jobs creation’. Underneath is this big photo of a sports car. The mayor is the chap with the smile holding the flag.

The leaflet says new jobs have been created in Liverpool, and implies that the mayor has something to do with it. Nowhere is there any reference to any of the jobs being anything to do with sports cars, but that’s the impression. This is a political party’s leaflet: as the cuckoo heralds the arrival of spring, the political leaflet heralds the arrival of elections.

It is a typical example of the jobs discourse current these days, a discourse which seriously needs challenging. What’s wrong with it? As I see it there are two main myths.

Myth 1: job creation depennds on the economy

We have grown used to the idea that only businesses can create jobs, and they can only do so when the economy is growing. This myth disempowers – or rather, it excuses the failures of governments. I don’t blame Liverpool City Council for not creating lots of jobs. Like all local councils and more than most, it is strapped for money and does not have the power to raise taxes. National governments do, and could create them whenever they wanted, but the myth that job-creation depends on the state of the economy lets them off the hook. Thus ‘the economic situation’ gets treated as a real force preventing the creation of jobs.

It is no such thing. ‘The economic situation’ is not a force. It is a description of the results of people’s actions. It does not stop us doing anything. The doing is done by humans. The restraints on people’s actions and lifestyles are caused by other people. Unemployment and poverty are what powerful people do to the powerless.

Myth 2: creating jobs is a good thing in itself

In the real world jobs can perform two useful functions. One is to provide an income to the worker. Most unemployed people seek jobs mainly because they want some money. Providing jobs has become our society’s primary way of distributing money. The main alternative – a social security system as part of the welfare state – is being dismantled, thus increasingly forcing people to apply for any job they can get, however poorly paid and however poor the conditions. On this point jobs are not good in themselves: they are a means to an end, namely an income for the workers. This end could be achieved in other ways.

The other useful function of jobs is to to serve the community by contributing to the common good. Lots of things need to be done, so people need to be paid to do them. However the present system has forgotten all about this. A job, to ATOS and the Government, is any activity which anybody is willing to pay for. If I offer to pay someone £20,000 a year to sit at home and do crosswords, that will count as a job. How did we get into this absurd situation? Because, absurdly, the Government judges its success in terms of economic growth, and economic growth is measured by adding up the total amounts of money people spend and are paid. As a result the value of jobs get judged not by whether they serve the community, but by how much money changes hands. We end up with leaflets like the one I have described here, praising the Mayor for bringing jobs to Liverpool but ignoring the question of what the jobs are designed to achieve.

A better alternative

How can we do things better than this?

  • Make sure everyone has enough money to live on, even if they haven’t got a job. If we did this people would be able to refuse jobs which are poorly paid or provide poor working conditions or perform anti-social activities. This is a basic requirement of any civilised society. Without it, work becomes slavery.
  • Distinguish between the jobs that need to be done and the jobs that don’t. If some people want to drive sports cars others will have to manufacture them; but let’s stop fantasising about how an increase in sports car manufacturing benefits us all by contributing to ‘the economy’. To make sports cars enables some people to drive sports cars, that’s all.
  • Distribute the jobs that need to be done, so that everyone who wants to can have a job and nobody has to work too hard.
  • Stop judging success by economic statistics. Judge it by quality of life. Ultimately quality of life is about happiness; but I would expect it to include individual empowerment, so that all adults feel free to choose their lifestyle rather than being driven to a particular job by the need for an income. I would also expect it to include leisure time pottering around doing nothing in particular and not contributing to the economy.
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