Over the last couple hundred years, the amount of work that each person is able to do has increased significantly every decade. Currently one farmer can feed thousands of people thanks to chemicals, mechanization and technology. As a writer, I can access information and correspond with people I would have needed an assistant for even 30 years ago (or I would do all the work myself and produce much less writing; take your pick). With all this increased productivity, plenty of jobs have been lost, but until recently, demand for new stuff and population growth has kept up with each profession's ability to do more and outsource less.

 

Until now.

 

I would argue that we have become too efficient — at the expense of the environment, (including using future generations' resources), at the expense of people's livelihoods — and we have gone into debt to keep that growth going, both personally and at the nation-state level. We have reached a turning point where it may make sense to be less productive. I'm not the only one, nor the first, with this crazy-sounding idea.

 

According to an opinion piece in the New York Times by Tim Jackson, economist and author of "Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet," "increasing productivity threatens full employment." We have become so streamlined in our work that there are literally not enough jobs to go around to keep everything moving as it is. All those people who are currently unemployed? Turns out that we don't really need them. But they certainly need jobs. So how do we employ them usefully? We have some choices.

 

To have full employment in the future, we can either:

A: Produce ever-more stuff, straining our resources and ramping up climate change and pollution, which are the natural results of business-as-usual — since most of us have plenty of "stuff" and are already in debt, this means more debt, or

B: Work less (some are suggesting a shorter work week, which would translate into more jobs overall), or
C: Slow down and become a little less productive. 

 

This makes sense, especially in certain professions. Back to the New York Times Op/Ed: "Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages. In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour?" 

 

Really investing in healthcare and education means that health professionals would have the time and space to work on preventative care, that educators could teach smaller classes and never let a kid fall through the cracks. 

 

Artists and creative people are another group of workers for whom efficiency is of little import. Supporting the arts means a richer culture and more and varied entertainment from those who make us laugh, think and cry via novels, TV shows, movies and music. 

 

Green jobs are also a part of this movement toward a society that's fully employed, and also healthier and more robust economically. According to Treehugger, "... a low-carbon economy is likely to create 15-60 million new jobs, even taking into account jobs lost from economic sectors unable to switch to low-carbon technologies." These jobs could include organic farming, which is more labor-intensive than conventional, polluting farm techniques, environmental education, converting buildings and homes to wind, wave, solar or geothermal power, insulating and repairing old homes so they use less energy, and more. Each of those changes requires someone to do the work to make it happen. 

 

Investing in an economy in which not only is every person employed, but most find fulfillment and maybe even a sense of joy from their work is one in which there is less crime and more happy people able to pay their bills. With the rush toward ever-more efficient ways of doing our work, wasn't that one of the goals anyway? Weren't we supposed to get to a place where we were ALL able to work less, enjoy family and friends more, contribute to our communities, and ensure that everyone was taken care of? Right now all I see is the people who are working putting in ever more time and energy, to the point where stress is a leading cause of disease in the Western world, and on the flip side, plenty of depressed and unhappy unemployed people. 

 

Maybe it's time to start thinking more about the person doing the job than how we can keep raising efficiency, and making more stuff with fewer people. 

 

MNN tease photo: Shutterstock

 

 

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