Reimagining work in a Europe beyond growth

In response to the 2023 Beyond Growth Conference, this piece is the eight in a weekly series that was published together on 8 May in a special issue magazine, “Imagining Europe Beyond Growth”, developed in partnership with Belgian de-growth think tank Oikos. The magazine, curated by our Senior Policy Officer for Systemic Change Nick Meynen, features 18 articles from diverse actors in the “beyond growth” sphere: from thought leaders such as Kate Raworth and Timothée Parrique to political figures and a variety of green civil society allies and EEB staff passionate about system change. Stay tuned for 1 article every week for the next eight weeks!

In the early spring of 2023, Southern Europe was already facing a drought, including forest fires as early as March. The danger is that ecological disruptions like these will increase in severity, with the very real danger of irreversible tipping points being breached. Thus, the IPCC argues that there is a “closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” This situation is causing economic growth to become both increasingly infeasible and undesirable.

In my recent report for the European Trade Union Institute on “Beyond Economic Growth: The Role of Trade Unions in the Transition to Well-Being,” I highlight how a Europe beyond economic growth—a scenario that is becoming ever more likely—will bring about substantial changes to European economies that offer an opportunity to reimagine work in society.

This article will outline how ecological crises are disrupting work, how transforming production will require transforming work, and how a just transition can smooth this disruption and provide meaningful work. It will also point to social-ecological working time reduction (WTR) as a policy to create a labour-nature alliance to shift societal focus towards wellbeing and equity instead of profit and growth.

Impacts of extreme weather events and ecological crises on work

Climate breakdown is already impacting European workers, especially under extreme weather conditions. Agricultural and construction workers, for instance, see their working conditions drastically worsen during the increasingly common heatwaves. Similarly, floods induced by climate breakdown often destroy the infrastructure that transportation workers’ livelihoods rely on. The impacts of intensifying extreme weather events will thus have a major impact on work by disrupting it and reducing its safety and quality. Furthermore, the impacts of ecological crises are likely to exacerbate inequality by strengthening the differentiation in wages between those who work inside and those who work outside.

In addition, the recent COVID pandemic, which was at least made more likely due to biodiversity collapse that facilitates zoonotic disease emergence, is a prime example of the deep disruption that nature can bring about.

Shifting work from extractive and divisive to regenerative and distributive sectors

To address and counter these ecological crises, ecologically extractive and socially divisive sectors will need to shrink to the benefit of sectors conducive to wellbeing. Thus, work will also have to be transformed. For instance, highly skilled workers in the fossil fuel sector will be needed in similar positions in the renewable energy sector. Similarly, factories may be put to effective use, for instance, by switching from the production of SUVs to the production of buses. This has the added benefit of not requiring additional growth to green the economy. Such an ecological conversion of production requires worker knowledge to work. Therefore, economic democracy—i.e., giving decision-making power to workers and other stakeholders—could play a key role in transforming our economies. Trade unions are well placed to support these endeavours and are already engaging with the ecological transition, for instance, by creating environmental representatives on union branch committees.

A just transition will be required to smoothen this disruption in the world of work

The recent EEB report by Marguerite Culot and Katharina Wiese on “Reimagining work for a just transition” highlights how a job guarantee could smoothen the transition from sunset to sunrise sectors and provide everyone with options for meaningful work. For example, rewilding will require major efforts to halt and reverse biodiversity collapse. However, these jobs should not be a substitute for benefits that force people into low-quality work. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) thus calls for quality, long-term jobs to counter these threats.

Furthermore, the ETUC puts forward strong and effective social protection systems as one of the five pillars of a just transition. In my report, I argue that universal basic services (UBS) could be the core of this pillar, providing security and continuity, which will be direly needed in a time of rising uncertainty. Healthcare, education, social care and basic mobility services free at the point of use would have a transformative nature and could also centre care and reproductive work – thus counterbalancing the focus on male-dominated jobs in mainstream calls for a just transition. Life-long education and skills training could also support the workforce moving into new sectors and be able to work through coming transformations. Lastly, UBS is also highly ecologically efficient and can ensure wellbeing and human flourishing in a Europe beyond growth; thus reducing the growth imperative as wellbeing becomes less dependent on income.

Social-ecological working time reduction is key for a wellbeing-focused move beyond growth

Reducing pressure on the living world will require an absolute global and permanent fall in emissions, land use, resource extraction, and pollution. This aim clashes with the so-called growth-jobs treadmill. Currently, increases in productivity result in a falling amount of work required for the same output, thus necessitating additional growth to offset job losses and uphold wellbeing. This leads to the “growth imperative” and a dilemma for trade unions: growth needs to be questioned but cannot be challenged due to its relation to jobs that are necessary for wellbeing.

A solution for this dilemma is the introduction of working time reduction (WTR), which promises a triple dividend of reducing unemployment, cutting carbon emissions, and raising quality of life. On the one hand, individual WTR redistributing work will allow for increased wellbeing and counter our dependence on growth. More leisure time also allows people to exit the work-spend cycle. And on the other hand, WTR at a societal level can provide an imperative to reduce socially unproductive work, thus driving a shift towards meaningful work that is less ecologically harmful. For instance, societal WTR can go hand-in-hand with ending planned obsolescence, a key postgrowth policy. Thus, WTR has also been featured during the eighth focus panel at the Beyond Growth Conference 2023, which discussed “Cutting the addiction of labour to growth: the four-day week.”

A labour-nature alliance for social-ecological working time reduction

With trade unions boasting a long history of demanding working time reductions, they will also be key actors in reducing time spent working in the future. Many trade unions are already in favour of WTR, with Fórsa, CGT, GPA and ÖGB demanding a move towards a four-day week, citing reduced emissions as one reason for this. This highly popular policy could thus be a key to a wider labour-nature alliance that brings about the needed transition to wellbeing.