Opportunities in the New Economy
The ‘New Economy’, that is, the economic and social systems of the future, make promises of a radical departure from life as we know it. Our living memories aren’t cognisant of a time when we didn’t have employer/employee relationships, when money wasn’t the primary means for getting the things we need and want, when we didn’t need to compete with each other to get ahead, or when success wasn’t defined by a job title, the size of your home, or your annual income. This means that the transition to a New Economy is scary and unknown. To reduce that fear and gain broader acceptance in the mainstream, it is important to demonstrate how the New Economy will actually work better for more people, as well as drawing attention to how it fails us now in sometimes invisible ways. We need to paint a picture of the incredibly fulfilling ways life will benefit the communities and people we care about.
Three of the main areas pregnant with possibility as I see them are:
1. The future of work — Precarity, Underemployment and Automation
2. Equitable access and Responsible custodianship of resources
3. Reframing what we value and living meaningful lives
1. The Future of Work
“The robots are coming.”
This prospect is really only scary if nothing else changes. When employers simply replace people doing a job with a more efficient, cheaper robot to doing that same job, and society fails to create alternative means for individuals, families and communities to get access to what they need, we have a big problem.
On the flipside, the idea of a non-sentient being cleaning public toilets, harvesting in the hot sun, performing a repetitive task on a factory line or doing dangerous jobs in a hole thousands of meters under the ground has a lot of merit. In fact it may signify peak civilisation. Life could actually be relatively ‘easy’.
So what is this ‘big problem’? Currently the deal is this: most of us exchange hours and/or skills for money. Then with that finite amount of income we seek to procure all of the necessities of life and a few of the comforts too. Simply, No job = No money = No food or housing. We can already see this playing out in Spain, Greece and increasingly in the U.S., Australia and throughout the developed world following the GFC. People have been forced to accept too few hours (underemployment), are made redundant due to a downturn in company profits and struggle to re-train for work in a changed world. Increasing numbers of our friends and family find themselves unemployed and either on a dole queue, or taking on underpaid, exploitative, difficult, dirty or dangerous work because low pay is better than no pay when you’re trying to meet your most basic needs. What a boon for employers! Desperation boosts the bottom line.
OK, so you might be one of the lucky ones, able to up-skill in time, or perhaps for now you have skills that cannot be automated (yet). But humans will do some crazy and morally suspect things when we’re staring at the possibility of losing our access to the things we need or have grown attached to. When you’re facing eviction or being unable to feed your kids, many of us make choices we wouldn’t ordinarily make. Criminal behaviour (theft, scams, squatting), drug addiction, and low level corruption often stem from people just trying to get by and/or cope with their lot in life. And those are social issues that affect all of us, either personally as victims or via the taxes used by governments and judicial systems dealing with the fallout.
I’m no luddite. I embrace technological change, and I am thrilled by the possibilities that advancement brings. But I am acutely aware that we cannot change one part of the system without having unintended (and often extremely negative) consequences downstream. Change, an overhaul of the way we get access to what we need and want, is a hugely exciting part of the New Economy.
2. Equitable access and Responsible custodianship of resources
Despite constant reinforcement that we live in scarcity, I genuinely believe there are abundant resources available in this world for us all to live comfortably. Let’s be honest. I am not talking about all 7 billion of us having 2,500 square foot homes with flat screen TV’s in every room, and 3 cars per family. I am talking about the 3 billion people who live on less than $2.50 a day having clean water, a safe home, enough food for their families and access to the internet so they too can educate, connect, and innovate.
A model of unrestrained growth — in consumption, in population, in profits, in production, in our list of wants — directly causes short-sighted custodianship of the planet. We live in a system which relies on ‘more’.
· Got an iPhone? It’s already outdated. Buy the newest one, complete with valuable mineral resources and toxic batteries assembled by people earning < $5 a day.
· Own some land being used as a park and recreation area, as well as wildlife sanctuary? Clear it, develop it, build blocks of apartments without any outdoor space, and sell them to the highest bidder to rent them out for 50% of a tenant’s weekly income.
· Awarded the patent for a drug developed through government-funded R&D? Hike up the price, register the company offshore to avoid tax, and limit supply to exacerbate demand in the sick people who need it.
· Running out of natural gas to fuel your high profit energy export market? Expand into fracking and tap into another resource that pollute our underground water reserves.
The neo-liberal capitalist economy not only benefits from such actions, but in fact is predicated on it. We reward people and corporations for selfish and unscrupulous behaviour by enabling them to profit from:
1. Offshoring labour to reduce production costs to weaker economies where worker rights don’t exist and they can pay extremely low wages
2. Selling off or privatising public and community assets to benefit the few
3. Creating a sense of scarcity by deliberately limiting access to essential items in order to demand a higher price
4. Exploit natural resources despite longer term, broad negative environmental consequences
5. Limiting the wealth generated from naturally occurring or publicly-funded resources to those with access to vast capital, especially through restrictive ownership rights (what was commonly owned becomes privately owned and managed for profit)
There must be losers because without them there can be no winners in capitalism. Sadly losers outnumber winners at a ratio of 99% to the 1%. Just ask the 8 men who own the same wealth as half the world. They didn’t get there through hard work alone, but rather on the backs of the rest of us, and plundering the natural environment which has supported us for thousands of years.
Currently we suffer under the legacies of the past; land grabs and subsequent ownership over resources. We teach our children to share, but as adults we claim what is ours and set rules on how much and how often others can use it, and what it will cost to do so. The New Economy demands that this unfair tradition right the wrongs of old, so that we cease perpetuating a system of inheritance that will always advantage the privileged few at the expense of the powerless majority without wealth, as well as unborn future generations left only a degraded environment.
The New Economy represents a fresh, responsible approach to environmental sustainability, the concept of ‘enough’ instead of ‘more’, recognising we cannot have infinite growth in a finite world. It ensures equitable communities in which each individual has enough of what they need to thrive, sharing the abundance of what we all equally own as inhabitants on earth.
3. Reframing what we value and Living meaningful lives
I want to see us reward every participant in the New Economy for acting in the greater good, but also to encourage freedom of individual choice, assigning value to a broader range of options, many of which currently lack any ‘market value’. If we all were free to pursue passionate lives doing meaningful, dignified work, imagine how differently we’d live in the world. Perhaps we wouldn’t crave to own the latest energy-hungry device as a distraction, maybe our loved ones wouldn’t abuse their bodies as an escape from depressing realities, and the pressure to ‘get ahead’ through dog-eat-dog competition in a race to the bottom would be diminished. If I were at liberty to find my purpose by spending my time raising children and you could apply yourself to mastering foreign languages, and your neighbour could indulge his love of cooking for others, and my friend brought joy through creating musical masterpieces, and we could all still have enough to eat, a comfortable place to sleep and access to the goods and services we require to live full and healthy lives, what’s to fight over?
I have never understood why the essential work of a secondary teacher is less valued than a banker on Wall Street, or why a fire fighter risking their life has a lower annual income than a real estate salesperson. Aren’t our nurses doing a job more important for our loved ones than an accountant? Shouldn’t the people who care for children every day be the most revered and rewarded people in our community? Something is horribly wrong when the people contributing the most to the betterment of others are valued lower than the people working in and gaming the money systems. This caring and nurturing work is most commonly done by women, and sadly it is work which is undervalued and poorly compensated in our modern capitalist economy.
A New Economy offers us the prospect of redressing these imbalances, and deciding as a community what is most valuable to us as a society. Freeing up our time to focus on that which we love to do, makes us happy, and helps others, rather than that which delivers the biggest pay check, is almost unimaginable. Almost!
If we got rid of all the useless or destructive occupations that keep us unnecessarily busy 40+ hours a week (telemarketers, public relations experts, advertisers, stockbrokers etc), and instead work fewer hours only in those jobs which maintain a functioning society and mechanised the rest, imagine how you might spend your time! That guy who tinkers in his garage on weekends, what might he invent? That lady that had to put her elderly mother into a nursing home, could she instead care for her full time? That school student who works after school, might she volunteer as a maths tutor for bright kids? That immigrant taxi driver could devote his time to his passion for biotech. The possibilities are inspiring.
In moving to a New Economy, we could solve some of the most threatening tensions we face. When scarcity and a fear of personal lack are removed as the driving force behind how we live our lives, collectively we are able to provide for each stakeholder sustainably into the distant future. I strive towards a life whereby all of us can find meaning and connection outside the current economic system which necessitates we sell ourselves for money. I want to see us move beyond a moral code which prescribes that we are worth only what we work to produce and consume, assigns us a status based on the brand of our car, and designates us a per hour value. Only then would we be liberated from soul-destroying jobs and undignified wage slavery. Only then can we fearlessly embrace the technological age and large scale adoption of automation with its promise of convenience, efficiency and human-centred design.
The New Economy will set us free.