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Working towards a cure for Europe’s economic burnout

The coronavirus crisis has driven home the reality that our growth-driven economy is neither working for most workers, nor for the environment. A new report provides a radical blueprint for work in a post-pandemic Europe.

COVID-19 has taught us that saving the lives of others does not always involve running into burning houses. It sometimes requires us to stay home and keep our distance.

Likewise, saving the planet does not always involve working harder, it can be done by working less, not to mention working differently. This was one of the messages of ‘Escaping the growth and jobs treadmill‘, a powerful report which was released this week.

Co-authored by the EEB and the European Youth Forum, the report demonstrates empirically that the current orthodoxy insisting that constant economic growth is a prerequisite for job creation is not only flawed but also socially and environmentally destructive, including so-called ‘green growth’.

Health, the true wealth

“An important lesson we’ve learnt over the past year is that health matters more than wealth. Health is the source of our wealth,” said the respected economist Tim Jackson, the author of Prosperity without Growth, at the virtual launch of the report on Wednesday.

Health is about striking a delicate balance. In contrast, the model of expansionary capitalism, what Jackson calls the predator-prey model, that has dominated in recent decades has been about maximising quick gains, even if it causes maximum long-term pain.

“We’ve built a model that enables the few to pursue an impossible dream,” Jackson explained. “What capitalism has done has divided society into two sets of people who are basically in competition with each other in society.”

Lockdown lessons

The COVID-19 pandemic has both thrown into focus the underlying conditions plaguing our current economic system and provided insight into an alternative future.

“What should have been obvious finally became obvious during the pandemic: the economy is there to serve life not the other way around. Life is not there to serve the economy,” Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, who is co-president of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, said at the launch. “If we have a system whose aim is to maximise wealth with no bounds, then it is bound to fail.”

“There are no jobs on a dead planet,” echoed Ludovic Voet, the confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). “The ecological consequences of growth are devastating.”

“Even as it shone a cruel light on the cracks in our society, the pandemic offered us an object lesson in transformation,” observes Jackson. “Lockdown curtailed our opportunities. But it sharpened our vision. Growth was set to one side. Health became our priority. The crisis provoked systemic change. But change cannot stop with crisis.”

Making Europe work again

Beyond the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on public health and people’s lives, the accompanying lockdowns and restrictions have also inflicted a huge toll on people’s livelihoods.

To date, 2020 has proved to be a rollercoaster ride for the European and global economies. For instance, in the second quarter of the year, the EU economy contracted by an unprecedented 12% compared with the previous quarter, shedding 5.5 million jobs, the largest decline the EU has ever recorded. Overall, in 2020, the European economy is expected to contract by around 9%.

Nevertheless, it is well within our means, the report concludes, to put everyone to work and ensure human wellbeing without economic growth. This can be achieved if productivity gains are distributed fairly and the focus of policy shifts to socially beneficial work, not just the most profitable jobs.

“Do we really want to go back to ‘normal’? Normal was a system where we needed to produce more to avoid mass unemployment with devastating effects on people and the planet,” notes the EEB’s Katy Wiese, the co-author of the report. “Building back better means rethinking our economic system by reducing our structural dependence on growth.”

“We won’t revive high GDP growth with an ageing and ever-less productive population in a world whose biophysical limits have been stretched to breaking point and in which people are increasingly unwilling or unable to buy more,” adds the European Youth Forum’s Jan Mayrhofer, the report’s other co-author. “It’s high time to rethink the jobs and growth agenda.”

Reinventing work

‘Escaping the growth and jobs treadmill’ presents a radical new vision for the future of work. The innovative solutions presented to Europe’s jobs conundrum include universal basic incomes, shorter working weeks, job sharing, job guarantees and economic democracy.

The mass unemployment and slump in living standards brought on by the coronavirus crisis has rendered universal basic incomes among the most popular and hotly debated policy solutions.

This is a government programme in which every citizen receives an amount of money which covers their basic needs and ensures a minimum standard of living. This not only guarantees the wellbeing of all, it can also help narrow the widening inequalities plaguing society and enable people to pursue their own work interests and contribute more to their communities and families.

Another popular solution is to shorten the working week, with no reduction in pay. The freed up hours can then be redistributed to more workers through job-sharing schemes. This is not only good for the mental and emotional health of our increasingly overworked labour force, it helps reduce the massive ecological footprint of modern jobs.

In addition, governments can take it upon themselves to enable people to engage in socially and environmentally beneficial work. This can be achieved through job guarantee schemes and by investing more in healthcare, culture, as well as nature conservation and restoration.

Battle for the new normal

Despite a major shift in outlook triggered by the coronavirus crisis and the environmental emergencies we confront, such a radical shift may prove a hard sell to some segments of society.

“We should not underestimate the conflicts. If we are really entering this paradigm shift, there will be losers and the losers will be the winners of the current system,” observed Philippe Lamberts.

“This report needs to have legs with the electorate and with ordinary people,” emphasised Will Stronge, the co-director of Autonomy, a think tank with a special focus on shortening the working week.

Regardless of the undoubted struggles ahead, change has become necessary and urgent. “The time has come for us to focus on the things that matter: ensuring wellbeing for everyone and providing people with meaningful pursuits in life. This should become our new normal,” says Wiese.