Work is a profoundly social activity. Few if any of us function as single subsistence farmers, disconnected from everybody else. We all work in a large complex network of relationships. From the suppliers of raw materials, to the manufacturers, the marketers and sales people, the distributors, the wholesalers and retailers, to the purchasers and delivery agents – interpersonal relationships in the division of our labour is normality. A well ordered society can feed, clothe, house and entertain millions of people in safety, comfort and justice every day. Indeed the evolved modern market place is one of the testimonies to human ingenuity that no central planner could have devised.
However, while work is social, western societies such as Australia, prize individualism and freedom. We allow people to do as much as they want without the interference from others – especially authorities such as government. As the Second Humanist Manifesto (1973) put it “We believe in maximum individual autonomy consonant with social responsibility”. But there’s the rub – how can you have both individual freedom and social responsibility, especially in an activity like work, which is profoundly social?
It is an organisational problem because work is so profoundly social that individuals, especially individual workers, cannot contend with the power and pressure of the wealthy. It is because of the social nature of work that unions have to fight for their members, and governments have to be involved in administering more than the fairness of the workplace – the good of society. The good of society cannot be achieved at the expense of the lives of workers. Industrial accidents and especially deaths should be a thing of the past. But there is more to the lives of workers than simply physical safety. What of family life and friendships or the humanist dream of maximising happiness?
Last week Ross Gittins, the economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) wrote:
“There is a contradiction at the heart of the way we organise our lives, the way governments regulate society … Ask people what's the most important thing in their lives and very few will answer making money and getting rich. Almost everyone will tell you it's their human relationships that matter most.
And yet much of the time that's not the way we behave. Too many of us spend too much time working and making money, and too little time enjoying the company of family and friends.
We live in an era of heightened materialism, where getting and spending crowds out the social and the spiritual. That's the way most of us order our lives and it's the way governments order our society. They worry about the economy above all else.”
Even the economics editor can see the flaw in making economics the be all and end all. If economics retains anything of its original meaning about household management it has so limited the management to finance as to undermine the household.
The problem can be seen in the recent political mantra of “the working family”. Apart from ignoring those workers who have no family, the phrase has a built in reminder of the constant modern struggle of the “work life balance”. For many people modern work is undermining family relationships, sometimes even replacing family with colleagues.
Yet economic analysis keeps pushing ‘work” instead of family. Earlier this month the SMH reported: “Australia was missing out on $195 billion or 13% of gross domestic product (GDP) by failing to close the gender gap”. Mr Tim Toohey the chief economist of Goldman Sachs, lamented the low female participation rate in the workplace – not because of the lack of opportunity for women to fulfil their desire to work but because of the negative effect it has on the GDP of one of the wealthiest nations on earth! Nowhere in the article was there appreciation of work done in the home as an important part of social wellbeing, or a choice that some people may want to make. The “great god GDP” – as Ross Gittins calls it – should determine our Government’s policy. Inducements, penalties, flexible hours, child care provision – whatever methods available should be used to get people to choose to work. We must have a 7 day a week economy.
It can be conceded that job creation is a great thing. Work is our livelihood. Unemployment is undesirable, both for the individual and society. We should encourage the business community to expand their activities for the good of society. Employees need to work with their employers to make their business profitable, that others may be able to gain employment and society as a whole prosper.
How can governments in times of ‘heightened materialism’, ever govern for non-economic concerns? Leaving aside the corruption of our governments by the gambling and alcohol industries, or the struggle to resolve the ecological questions of human exploitation, the simple issue of working hours and public holidays has been undermined by governments of both sides of politics. Without weekends individuals cannot get time off when they, their families and their friends can enjoy life together. And of course it is the poor who are the losers – coerced into working unsociable hours on shifts that eat into family life.
How striking is the commandment of God, “but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.” Deuteronomy 5:14
As long ago as the days of Moses, there has been a clear moral imperative that employers were to look after the welfare of those they employ. Those who depend upon us for work, in particular depend upon us to share in the community rest and refreshment. What is needed is not a change of government but a change of heart.