'Work' refers to an activity that is performed in order to produce a result and that generally contributes to the good of society. Work can be creative, artistic or done on a voluntary basis. The term ‘employment’ dates back to the Middle-Ages and refers to work that is done in exchange of a wage. Employment is paid work. The difference, beyond semantics, is that employment is disappearing while there will always be work.
In 2015, a report from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) forecast that more than 5 million jobs would disappear in the next 10 to 15 years. In 2018, research from the Australian Institute’s Centre for Future Work revealed that less than half of Australian workers had a permanent full-time job. I wrote about underemployment a while ago. In brief, underemployment is creeping up, casual is the new normal and an increasing number of workers are only a couple of bills away from poverty.
The situation we experience today is the result of advances in automation and technology as well as neoliberal economic policies pushing towards work casualisation. Nobody is safe, from the bottom of the working pool to the most qualified workers. Our current system has reached its limits: economic growth doesn't equate to employment growth anymore. It’s not all doom and gloom though.
There will always be people to feed, roads to repair and things to build or fix. Employment will never completely disappear. Certain jobs simply can’t be replaced by robots. I'm thinking of jobs that require human physical interaction such as nurses or physiotherapists. The remaining jobs, however, will be precarious, highly competitive and will leave many people behind.
In order to produce the article you are reading, I have to research, write a draft then edit it. You can argue that writing a blog is a leisure activity, it is a lot of work nonetheless. Stay at home mums may not be employed either, yet they work hard to raise and look after their children so they can be healthy and educated. Volunteering is working too. Volunteers feed the poor, clean the environment or look after the elderly - all of which are the government's responsibilities by the way. Meaningful work also contributes to boost workers’ self-esteem and feeling of contributing to society.
Any work that contributes to the overall good of society should be compensated. Another avenue worth exploring is the concept of universal basic income. A universal basic income is a government allowance granted to every resident of a country so they can meet their basic needs such as food, health and accommodation. The idea appeared in the early 20th century and was supported by Australia’s Labor Party’s Barry Jones in the 1980's before it was dropped by the Bob Hawke Labor government. More on universal basic income in another blog.
A word to the wise
For Ancient Greece philosopher Aristotle, work is a means to an end. For 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx, work is the essence of man but hard labour is alienation. As for me, I think there needs to be a discussion about the place of work in our society today and how to prepare for the future before it is too late.