What could a radical vision of ‘good’ work look like?
21 June 2017 - Impact Hub

What do we mean by ‘good’ work? A huge multi-faceted question we’ve been asking ourselves for a while now.  To collectively explore this and spark a wider conversation, we invited four people to share their radical vision for the future of ‘good’ work on the 14th June. This was the second event in this series and part of the Unusual Suspects London 2017 festival.
Here are our key take-aways:
Dr Alex Wood, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, went straight into busting some of the “flexibility myths” surrounding the ‘gig economy’. The gig economy is supposed to offer genuine choice over working hours, but this rests on the false assumption that there is plentiful demand for ‘gig’ work around the clock. In reality, there is often a lot of competition for gigs, especially on online platforms, which, ironically, means that you have to be available 24/7 to get the work you need to pay the bills. In Alex’s radical vision of ‘good’ work we will transform flexibility to really make it work for workers – through collective action, representation of these struggles at government level and by setting up infrastructures that protect self-employed workers (eg through platform cooperatives).
working together impact hub islington
Sara Allen, a former civil servant and founder of Further & More, offered a slightly different perspective on the value of ‘flexibility’ at work by looking at job sharing. The 40-hour week, she argued, is such a huge barrier to participation in work for so many people, and part-time work tends to be less well-paid and entail fewer progression opportunities than full-time roles. According to Sara, the future of ‘good’ work is job-shared. Imagine a job that brings together two people with complementary skillsets, two creative minds that look at the same challenge in different ways, two hearts that support each other, two schedules that can cover for each other during holidays or sickness, two committed individuals who keep each other on track – whilst keeping great people in the organisation regardless of whether they’re able to work 40 hours per week. Let’s take this a step further. What if we had two job sharing Prime Ministers? What additional energy, innovation and accountability would this bring? Feels like now would be an opportune time to experiment…
building relationships impact hub islington
Dr Malcolm Torry, Director at the Citizens’ Income Trust, introduced us to the Citizens’ Income (also referred to as Universal Basic Income), which could radically transform work. Malcolm started by offering a basic definition of work as “expending energy and applying effort to a purpose”. Is there any activity that doesn’t fall into this category?, he asked. When you think you’ve stopped working you will work: cooking food, caring for others, making furniture, studying, cleaning up a nature reserve…you name it. The relationship between work and income is highly constructed and not always straightforward, Malcolm said. The UK welfare system doesn’t incentivise people to do paid work as you lose benefits when increasing hours of paid work. A Citizen’s Income would change this. By providing a foundation for both unpaid and part-time work, people would have more choice in pursuing work that is purposeful and enjoyable to them – whether it pays or not.
inclusive work impact hub islington
Professor Tim Jackson, who teaches Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and is an award-winning playwright, offered a more philosophical perspective on the meaning of work. Work, he suggested, is fundamentally about participation in society. Work is about being in service to other people. Psychological research has shown that it’s the intrinsic motivation to work that drives us; monetary incentives are secondary. Work is everywhere you look, but what’s missing is the infrastructure that allows people to turn meaningful activities into work that supports their livelihoods.
Tim tackled the ‘technology myth’ head on:

“The myth that robots are coming to save us is completely not true. They’ll come to create a great deal of money for a small number of people and trash the planet on the way.”

Instead, Tim believes there’s a sweet spot for the future of work around care, craft and creativity – areas that are employment rich (there are as many jobs as society has needs – think of an ageing population, for example), sustainable (because they arise from people’s passions) and low-carbon (they require neither high-tech kits nor a lot of travel).

The panel conversation was followed by plenty of questions from the audience, such as:

  • How can we get away from our obsession with the 40-hour work week?
  • What’s at the heart of the gap between the number of jobs available and demand for work, and how can we have prosperity without growth without growing jobs?
  • Can we talk about the elephant in the room –  how does money and status influence our work?
  • What’s the role of the education system in shaping our view of work?

There is lots more to explore…
Here’s a visual map of the conversation by our wonderful illustrator Ariadne Radi Cor:
work diagram impact hub islington

Finally, we asked the panellists for their thoughts on how we can take this conversation forward? So many people are doing brilliant work in this area – see for example the great stuff the RSA are doing on behalf of the UK government or the Future of Work is Human platform – how can we join the dots?

Alex particularly emphasised the importance of people coming together in spaces like the Hub to collectively develop our own vision and work towards it. Tim added that it’s important that the question of ‘good’ work isn’t drowned out by Brexit. And Sara emphasised that this cannot be a top-down conversation – we need to look at who sits at the table! If this is about shaping the future of our work, we’d better have lots of voices in the room to make sure we are building a future that includes everyone.
We’d love you to join the conversation! Our next event will be on Wednesday, 13th September from 7pm. Drop Julia a line ([email protected]) if you’d like to find out more.
Photos by the talented Chris King | www.chriskingphotography.com