one difference between work and productivity could be relevant to this discussion. i’ve met people who do unproductive work, and people who are productive but have no job - i’m sure you have too. every now and again i meet people who combine both - i think i manage to do this, and feel pretty lucky about it.
we’re obsessed with work in europe - so it’s ironic that unemployment is so high. my own government preaches about working, in the same way that Victorians or early american pioneers did - not just useful for the economy, but redemptive for the soul, a moral duty. the flipside of this is that being unemployed takes on another dimension: you’re not just short of cash, but sinning; letting everyone else down; morally inferior. i’ve never been short of work, but i’ve had close friends who’ve been unemployed for a year or two, and the way society treats them has definitely made the matter worse.
somebody i knew at university now works for a PR firm, which lobbies european governments on behalf of ‘questionable regimes’ (dictators, juntas, etc.) overseas. we don’t talk anymore, for obvious reasons. his work is ridiculously well-paid. another friend has been out of work for two years, but spends most of his time helping out at our volunteer-run community cinema. he’s an amazing guy, intelligent and extremely productive, but unemployed.
i have a pretty set view about which role society would be better off without. i hold out hope that my former acquaintance from university will see the error of his ways, get involved in something that’s productive (rather than counter-productive), but it’s pretty unlikely - and at the same time, i deeply admire the commitment of my friend who works every day to help run a low-cost cinema space, for the benefit of a community that’s not exactly wealthy, and which needs more help from people like him.
the current government takes the opposite view to me. my university acquaintance might do things that mean we have to spend more on foreign aid, mediation and armaments, but he’s in work. my cinema friend is threatened with the withdrawal of his benefits if he doesn’t take a low-skilled job in retail, which would mean giving up most of his work in the cinema.
the government has a real problem, which ever party is in power. simple measures such as GDP, taxable income and that sort of thing, cannot differentiate between work and productivity. those concepts have been fundamentally disconnected from each other, as a result of a myriad of social and technological changes across decades. people talk of ‘McJobs’, the feeling that you’re being paid minimum wage to stand around in a cheap uniform, usually in the low-skill service sector, essentially doing nothing.
despite its best efforts and (often) good intentions, measuring productivity separately from work from the vantage-point of the government is extremely challenging.
i don’t really have a solution. it’s tempting to think, as is the current vogue, that we might solve the problem technologically, and maybe that’s possible. real-time data in a digital form, and network analysis, might allow us to see the importance of inter-related activity, and value some people because they’re a useful part of a social ecosystem, even if they make very little money. i have a different view, though, which is that the answer (when we find it) will be fundamentally social, rather than technical. we need to stop fetishising paid work, and value socially-minded productivity more. that means we need a new way to value a productive human hour - not just the current measure, which is the hourly wage.
our goal should be to work less, not more, but be more productive. and we need a way to support this - not the current, informal one (which provides very little security), where young people must survive, sometimes for years, on grants or benefits whilst doing wonderful things for others. what about a low, guaranteed wage for full-time community workers, or something similar? are ideas like that too radical? do they miss the point? it’d be nice to discuss, because i’m pretty certain the current set-up isn’t working.