Why? Why do we have to work longer and longer before we retire? I am a baby boomer, brought up to believe my generation had the best living conditions ever. Things were going to carry on getting better without limit. New technology was going to mean we could spend less and less time at work. Why is everything is being put into reverse?
Because the story was never true. There were real improvements, but for reasons the Government wants us to forget. What they now want us to believe is a myth with its own logic, making us do more and more things regardless of whether they need to be done.
It goes something like this:
Where do these beliefs come from? They have a history. Here is a brief summary.
Before modern times Christians, Jews and Muslims all believed that the wealth is given by God. Economics was a matter of ethics: the task of humans was to make sure God’s generosity was shared out so that everybody had what they needed. Different authorities interpreted the principle differently, but this was the underlying basis. Catholic teaching, for example, laid down rules for fair prices and fair wages.
After the Reformation Catholic influence declined and northern Europe became more unequal. In unequal societies children grow up with different expectations about how much wealth is enough, what counts as poverty and what counts as more than enough.
Most people tend to assume that their accustomed lifestyle is normal. In unequal societies the affluent can easily look down on the lifestyles of the poor, feel sorry for them, and wonder whether their own affluence could be shared with everyone.
In 18th century Europe the answer was emphatically no. Either their own lifestyle was over the top and should be simplified – which they didn’t want to believe – or everybody else’s lifestyle needed help.
As they saw it, the task was to increase production and consumption so that other people could catch up. Nature is mean, because it can’t provide enough for everybody to live like 18th century aristocrats, with those elaborate wigs. Effort is needed to create more wealth. How? By technique: from now on, economics is a social science, working out how to manipulate people and get them to work harder.
We might think of this as the first step away from the religious tradition. At this stage, things had not got as crazy as they are now, but it was an important step towards it.
The point of economic growth was to increase production, and the point of increased production was to improve the quality of life of the poor. Economic theory was the servant of manufacturing, manufacturing was the servant of human well-being.
Of course I’m generalising. Theories varied. My point is that the perceived need for more manufacturing and wealth was driven by the attitudes of the affluent to the gap between rich and poor. Their attitudes were the product of a very unequal society. In reality there always was enough food for everyone to eat well and enough land for everyone to have a decent home, but redistribution wasn’t what the affluent wanted.
When I first studied economics in the 1970s there was still debate about whether economic growth was the best response to poverty. Since then, Western governments have tended to forget that that was the point of it. No doubt many only ever wanted to make themselves richer, and didn’t really care about the poor.
The next change was to redescribe the purpose of all this extra work. It was promoted by neo-liberal economic theorists, with remarkably little convincing opposition.
From the perspective of Government policy-makers, it is very complicated to measure how much of every necessity is being manufactured. Command economies did it, as in the USSR, but it could leave people feeling their lives were being micromanaged by control freaks. It is easier for governments simply to measure how much money changes hands. This is done via the Gross Domestic Product. Rather lazily, people continued to assume that economic growth would somehow still benefit the poor.
With this change, ‘work’ changes too. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors picked and speared their food, and otherwise didn’t need to do much. Our peasant ancestors in agricultural empires had to grow food and pay a lot of it in taxes, but the amount of productive work they could do was limited by what the land could produce. There were times when there was no work to be done. Later came industrialisation, which increased the amount to be done. Still, as long as it was based on meeting people’s needs, there was a limit to the number of knives and forks to be manufactured.
The limits come off when the priorities swap places. Instead of economic growth being the servant of useful production, production has become the servant of economic growth. Today, what matters about ‘work’ is that money changes hands and taxes are being paid. Whether the employee is doing something useful ceases to matter. How much work needs to be done? Now, the sky’s the limit.
So we reach the present stage in the fetishisation of work. More and more people are being paid to do things which nobody did 30 years ago. Many of them do more harm than good. One only has to think of the huge problems with plastic all over our oceans, let alone extinctions of species and climate change.
Advertising is designed to make people want what they would otherwise have been content without. I guess everybody who reads this will dislike being phoned up out of the blue by people trying to sell something. You and I may get angry, but as far as the Government is concerned it’s one less person on the unemployment register, one more statistic adding to economic growth. It’s good for the economy! To invert Jesus, humanity is made for mammon.
We need governments that learn once again what their medieval predecessors knew: the difference between paid employment and useful work. It is as though Western governments have forgotten the whole point of work.
Meanwhile, in a faraway world unknown to government policy-makers, most necessary work is provided free of charge without any money changing hands or anybody measuring it. When full-time workers retire they quite often enjoy offering their expertise to people they know who would welcome help. Most 66-year old women would far rather look after their grandchildren than carry on in paid employment. They enjoy it more, and it’s usually much more valuable.