Robin McAlpine – 20th January 2022
Did you, at some point during the pandemic, start to think about your life differently? You might have had more time with your family, escaped the daily commute, got a bit of a break from your job, had the opportunity to try out a new hobby, started taking regular exercise.
At the end of lockdown you might have felt a sense of demotivation, a yearning for social contact you didn’t realise how much you missed, found yourself wondering how the life you have matches the life you once thought you would have….
If so, you are probably part of a phenomenon that is currently being called the ‘Great Resignation’, the remarkable and unprecedented instances of mass resignations from (mostly) low-skill employment right across the economy (a phenomenon even more acute in the US).
As with all sudden phenomena, there is more conjecture about its precise cause than there is evidence, but it may well be thought of primarily as the result of ‘pause’. This is the idea behind mindfulness – that modern life leaves us little time to step back and take a breath and doing so gives you time to see more clearly how you are living.
We go to work, work too many hours (or not enough, leaving us financially stressed), get back home late, eat poorly, rest poorly and often make up for it with behaviours that are damaging like drinking or eating too much or spending far too much on things that distract us from this reality.
The problem with the Great Resignation is the crashing return of reality (or the ‘Great Realisation’ as some have dubbed it). The in-between point where you know that what you were doing isn’t really what you want to be doing – but you still have bills to pay and food to put on the table…
Can we do anything to stop the Great Realisation crushing us back into the life we just found ourselves questioning? Yes – but it will take bold moves. Here are six.
1. Work less
There is so much going for a four day working week – it increases productivity, focusses the economy on real value, helps with wellbeing, strengthens community, increases volunteering and participation, reduces energy use, and much more.
But it can’t really be done piecemeal. The French experience of this is that it works, but it needs to be universal and it needs to be sustained over time. But it really would be an enormous change in our society – for the better.
2. Pay better
The main barrier to a shorter working week is affordability – people work too many hours because we live in a comparatively low-pay society but with a pretty high cost of living. Where other economies have invested in technology to increase productivity, we’ve relied on squeezing more and more out of the labour force.
Common Weal may be a bit of a broken record on this but we need to move to a higher-skill, higher-value economy. This is a big task and we’ve produced acres of work on how to do it, but perhaps a series of symbolic (but not vacuous) moves could break the logjam and make this a topic that demands serious political debate.
Obvious steps like raising the minimum wage, putting in place a serious industrial strategy, disincentivising broadly useless low-pay jobs and incentivising investment in technology which improves productivity would all be a very good start.
3. Reduce the cost of living
We could also take some serious steps on the other side of the equation, not least put in place a Universal Basic Income which would overnight increase affordability for those on low pay. But that isn’t enough – the UK’s ever-rising housing costs (along with fluctuating energy costs) traps people in long hours at all sorts of points on the income scale.
This one we can take fast action on (though it will take a while to filter through). A new generation of affordable public rental housing, limiting AirBnBs and second home ownership and a Property Tax would control house prices rises in the future (and provide alternatives to the cost of our extortionate private rental sector).
But since massive wealth has been generated from housing in the last two decades, perhaps a combination of aggressive negotiations and even a windfall tax on those making the biggest profits could force mortgage lenders to take a ‘haircut’ on mortgage costs across the board. Radical – but not illegal.
Scotland’s renewable energy potential means that in time we could also achieve the same with energy costs (and a public energy company). A renewable electricity and heating system once in place is basically inflation-proof and costs could be controlled in the public interest rather than in the interests of producers.
4. Kill the commute
Few love the commute, many others live where they live for reasons of access to employment rather than because it is where they would choose to live if they were free to choose. The commute can be cut and the freedom to live where you want made real with homeworking and decentralisation. Those who simply can’t home work might have a statutory hours cut facilitated by that UBI.
This must absolutely not mean isolation. There are all sorts of ways to address the risk of isolation, such as localised work hubs where people can go and sit at a desk in an office with other people, all of whom are working for different companies.
5. Increase ‘life’
There’s an odd assumption that addressing the work/life balance is all about reducing work (as if everything that isn’t work is ‘life’). One of the value-giving elements of our existence (and one we’ve been losing) is random interactions with people we have firm and enduring links to – or ‘community’. A lot of us have swapped community for colleagues, work replacing home as a pivot for our relationships.
This is unhealthy for many reasons but homeworking makes it very dangerous indeed. We need to recognise that a lot of what we are feeling post-lockdown is the sense that too much of our life is instrumental, transactional. We need more random gossip from people we bump into for no particular reason. We need place back in our lives, the places we live, shop, exist…
The ’20 minute neighbourhood’ isn’t ambitious enough; we need ways to rebuild support and relationships right where it is that we live. An ambitious plan could do that.
Finally, we need to rethink what we value. We lost togetherness during the lockdown and many replaced it with consumption – the compulsive online shopping that so often failed to scratch the itch. No wonder – the sugar-rush of consumption will never replace the nutrition we get from truly valuable activity.
We need a national programme to get us away from our spending addiction and re-engage us with the things that are shown to really make a positive lasting difference to our lives. Participating, socialising, relaxing, the arts, learning, discovering, sport, being together, volunteering to help others…
All of these things transform us, not in the short term but in lasting and sustainable ways. But just think how easy it is to buy yet another piece of plastic versus how much effort it will take you to find say a Spanish class (you know, in person with people you can feel connected to, on a ‘learning journey’ with).
It is structurally hard to do the good things, structurally easy to do the bad things. If only we could reverse that our lives would just feel like they were filled with more meaning.