Knocking off early

While middle-skilled jobs are being hollowed out, leaving more over-50s in the unemployment queue, there are calls for us all to work less so we can spend more time doing things that are useful.PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
While middle-skilled jobs are being hollowed out, leaving more over-50s in the unemployment queue, there are calls for us all to work less so we can spend more time doing things that are useful.PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES

People in their 50s are already experiencing the future of work. It is not pretty. But Bruce Munro talks to a historian who says it does not need to be that way.

Emma has just started work in retail. It is minimum wage, part-time. She is on her feet for eight hours at a stretch. She is not complaining. It is a job, after all.

But Emma is not her real name. And she is no young thing embarking on working life.

In her mid-50s, with a tertiary qualification and more than 20 years of skilled work behind her, she has recently landed her first job in five years.

Otago is small, and she is a private person. You know how people talk. So, no name, please.

The way down has been long and the landing hard. Family tragedy and personal ill-health saw her giving up well-paid work in 2010. But she was confident that when the time came, with her skills and attitude, she would have no trouble getting more work.

Technology change morphed her job into something for which she was no longer qualified. She broadened her horizons and lowered her expectations.

In the ensuing years, several dozen applications for a grab-bag of jobs were posted away, without success. One vacancy had 80 applicants. More than one workplace made it clear she was too qualified or too old.

Journalist and historian Rutger  Bregman (28), of the Netherlands, is  making waves with his call for a  return to ‘‘consuming our prosperity  in the form of leisure’’.  PHOTO: STEPHAN VAN FLETEREN
Journalist and historian Rutger Bregman (28), of the Netherlands, is making waves with his call for a return to ‘‘consuming our prosperity in the form of leisure’’. PHOTO: STEPHAN VAN FLETEREN

A neighbour was facing a similar predicament. A tradesman in his late 50s when he was made redundant, he qualified for superannuation before he could get another job.

Emma went on a course to gain more computing skills. She was one of several in her age group there who were struggling to get work, including her tutor.

The tutor, on contract work, was a former teacher made redundant by a falling school roll.

During the three years to the start of this year, when he finally got permanent work, he applied for more than 80 jobs.

House insurance and a telephone landline have become too expensive for Emma, a car too pricey to fix. Maintenance, including attending to holes in the bathroom floor, have been deferred. The mortgage still has almost 20 years to run.

"I was relatively well-paid, with good conditions and good holidays,'' Emma says.

"I never thought I wouldn't have a decent income. I certainly never thought I wouldn't be working.''

Here is another thing Emma probably never expected. She and the many other unemployed 50-somethings have become the canary in the mine of 21st-century working life.

In 1986, there were 212,000 people aged 50 to 59 in employment in New Zealand, Statistics New Zealand figures show. Unemployed 50-somethings numbered 4000.

Thirty years later, as the tail end of the baby boomers push through their sixth decade, the number of 50 to 59-year-olds in employment has more than doubled to 489,000.

The number of their cohorts who are unemployed, however, has grown to 20,000. A five-fold increase.

Discrimination is partly to blame for the steep and disproportionate rise in out-of-work 50-somethings.

Australian and United Kingdom research shows that as the workforce gets older, the age at which employees are being labelled "old'' is, ironically, getting younger.

Associate Prof Leanne Cutcher, of the University of Sydney, said employers generally believed that if someone had not "made it'' by the age of 40 they were not going to "make it'' at all.

This ignored the "huge potential'' of people in their 50s and older who were often freer than at any other time in their lives to devote themselves to work, Prof Cutcher said.

But to tackle ageism alone is to miss the warning.

The sight of 20,000 canaries lying gasping for breath at the bottom of the birdcage suggests that simply trying to put them all back up on their perch is not dealing with the real problem; that some more fundamental dysfunction is threatening all of us.

The latest diagnosis comes from Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. A translation of the 28-year-old's book, Utopia for Realists, has been making waves in the English-speaking world since being published last month.

Speaking via Skype a few days ago, Mr Bregman painted a picture of a global labour market and a Western way of life that he says has gone badly awry. For more than a century, prosperity was increasing and working hours were reducing, he says from his Amsterdam office.

"We always traded a little of our increased prosperity in the form of shorter working hours,'' Mr Bregman says.

"Almost all sociologists and trend-watchers in the 1960s and '70s said, 'The end of work is in sight. If it keeps going this way, robots will be doing all the work and our biggest challenge will be boredom'. But then, history changed course.''

Today, despite the Western standard of living being five times higher than it was in 1930, people are working harder and longer than they were 30 years ago, he says.

Many people feel they are in what American anthropologist David Graeber terms "bulls*** jobs''; work that would not be missed if they stopped doing it.

Social welfare systems are proving humiliating and expensive without delivering more jobs. And anxiety has become an epidemic, including among youth.

"While those in their 30s are drowning in work, family responsibilities and mortgages, seniors struggle to get hired,'' Mr Bregman says.

Labour market polarised  

What the 50-somethings are experiencing is the "hollowing out'' of jobs. The labour market is becoming polarised, with more specialisation at one end and more low-skilled work at the other and little in between.

Medium-skilled workers losing their jobs later in their careers are finding they are not qualified for well-paid work and that they are competing with young people for "McJobs''.

It is a phenomenon that is only expected to increase if nothing else changes.

"The countries with the biggest disparities in wealth are precisely those with the longest working weeks,'' Mr Bregman says.

"While the poor are working longer hours just to get by, the rich are finding it ever more 'expensive' to take time off as their salaries rise.''

If that does not sound bleak enough already, the automation of everything is just around the corner. And New Zealand will not be exempt.

The Labour Party, in its Future of Work Commission, has estimated that 46% of all jobs will be automated within 15 years.

With the labour market already out of kilter, enormous changes coming and skyrocketing numbers of unemployed 50-somethings painting a vivid and ugly picture of what that life will look like for a broadening swathe of the population, a radical rethink looks decidedly sensible.

Mr Bregman's vision has no problem fitting that bill. He is proposing a 15-hour working week and a universal basic income.

Studies show overtime is deadly and that people who work less are more satisfied with their lives, he says.

Shorter working weeks would mean there was more work to go around and everyone would have more time for other pursuits.

"I think people will only get it when they start to fundamentally rethink what work actually is,'' Mr Bregman says.

"There are many people who at 3pm or 4pm are at their job but they are only browsing on Facebook. Are they working at that point? And there are so many things that we do in our free time that are real work; looking after the elderly, caring for children ...

"An easy way to know whether you are doing work is to stop doing it and see what happens. If problems arise, you were doing work.''

He contrasts strikes by rubbish collectors with a 1970 strike by Irish bankers.

An average city can survive without refuse collection for a week or two before it becomes an emergency situation.

Money was largely inaccessible throughout the six-month bankers' strike, but people simply traded IOUs as currency and the economy continued to grow.

There is no reason why we should not all be working a much shorter week, he says. The prosperity exists to make it possible.

But the blockage is twofold; how that wealth is distributed and our choice during the past three decades to work longer hours instead of following the example of the previous century.

Redistribution would best be in the form of a basic income, Mr Bregman believes.

And ideally, that income would be universal, unconditional and individual. It needs to be universal, regardless of other income or wealth, so that there is no stigma attached to it, he argues.

"It is not a favour, it is a right. Some people see a basic income as a dividend of progress. That, because our forefathers worked so hard and brought us all this technology and prosperity, we all deserve a share of these accomplishments.''

In answer to claims it is unaffordable, he says look at the net results.

"What we know from studies is that one of the most important effects of introducing a basic income is that it would eradicate poverty.''

Poverty is expensive in terms of higher healthcare costs and crime rates.

It means lower tax takes for government and less investment in human capital.

"Eradicating poverty is actually really cheap; it is a few percentage points of GDP. It is actually an investment.

"So in the long run the rich will profit from that as well because everyone is happier ... If your neighbour is doing well, then you are also doing better.''

Wouldn't this utopia just be full of lazy people?

Mr Bregman says he is told that all the time. In response, he asks people whether, if they received a basic income, would they stop working.

They say they might cut back a bit on work, but that they would use the extra time for volunteering and other pursuits they haven't had time for. However, when asked what they think other people would do, many reply they believe others will be lazy.

"I've looked at actual experiments ... The overwhelming evidence is that most people are creative and want to make something of their lives.

"What I would like to see is a tax system and a basic income that will give many people the opportunity to do more work that is useful.''

Berl senior economist Mark Cox. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Berl senior economist Mark Cox. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Mr Bregman describes a basic income as the "ultimate marriage of right- and left-wing politics''.

"It is very right wing in that it gives people the individual right to decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives. It's all about individual responsibility. It's all about individual choices.

"But it is very left wing in the sense that it's about redistribution of wealth and eradication of poverty.''

Mark Cox is a senior economist at Business and Economic Research Ltd (Berl), which provides analysis and advice to business and government.

Mr Cox thinks some things need to change, but that the labour market will find its own way forward and people would reject Mr Bregman's vision as a bridge too far.

"The labour market is always in a state of flux,'' he says. "The point about technology is that it is always changing ... Some jobs will inevitably disappear, but others will appear in their place.''

He agrees we are seeing some hollowing out of medium-skilled jobs.

And believes some people whose jobs disappear because of technology change will need financial help to retrain.

Mr Cox questions whether the country's 150,000 unemployed would have the skills to step into the breach if a shorter working week was introduced.

He also doubts many people in specialised jobs would want to give up their long hours.

"The fact of the matter is that people on high incomes want to carry on working the long weeks so they can afford the second house, the bigger mortgage, the boat and the foreign holidays.''

That is the key obstacle, Mr Bregman says. We are wedded to consumerism, which keeps us on the treadmill.

"We keep buying stuff we don't need, to impress people we don't like. But it doesn't have to be this way.

"Consuming less starts with working less - or, better yet - with consuming our prosperity in the form of leisure.''

The key, he says, is to make the change as a society rather than as individuals.

"We don't decide our working hours on our own. There are social norms, there are institutional norms. It very much depends on the laws and institutions. We can change those, but only collectively.

"That's one of the problems of the past 20 to 30 years; we have seen many collective problems, such as the epidemic of stress and burnout, as individual problems.

"We can decide, not on our own but as a society, to have different laws, different institutions, different ways of distributing the benefits of automation and prosperity.''

Emma is sitting on her couch in her small, sunless living room. She is trying to imagine her life if a basic income and shorter working week were the norm.

"Wow. What would we all do?'' she says, and pauses. "I might have been able to do some more retraining earlier.''

She pauses again. "I imagine there would be more community activities. Because you'd need more recreational outlets.

"You know how people say they don't have time to spend with their children? Well, you'd have plenty of time. You'd probably do more with your neighbours. I imagine that would lead to reduced crime in a way, if people were happier and friendlier.''




• Finland. The centre-right government has set aside €20 million for a two-year, basic income experiment starting next year. The experiment is likely to involve 10,000 randomly selected households. Almost 70% of the population supports the idea of a €1000/month basic income.

• Netherlands. Utrecht is one of four city councils in the Netherlands trialling basic incomes. The joint city council and University of Utrecht experiment will see a selected group of adults receive €900/month (€1300 for a couple or family) with no restrictions on how it is spent.

• Kenya. Charity organisation GiveDirectly will give 6000 Kenyans a guaranteed basic income for the next decade.

• United States. Technology seed investment company Y Combinator has announced it wants to fund a five-year basic income experiment in the US. Y Combinator-funded start-ups have included Airbnb, Dropbox, Zenefits and Stripe.


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