What Is 'Good Work'? This Question, and the Exposure of a Fundamental Misunderstanding in the UBI Debate
I was at a consultation event on Universal Basic Income last week. It's a topic I'm interested in (worklessness was one of the policy areas I led for a while when I was in government) and it's been on my mind ever since.
This is an attempt to summarise where my musings have led me so far...
The discussion was interesting—most people at the left-leaning salon were in favour, although some had reservations about how it would work and whether it was a mechanism that could really solve some of our deep-rooted social challenges.
As the discussion progressed, though, and expanded into topics like "what is 'good work'?" and how could the additional payment change the face of work, I realised that there was a fundamental misunderstanding in the room:
That our external circumstances dictate our 'happiness' and sense of well-being.
The argument being put forward by the organisers was that, and I quote,
"Good work is work we flourish doing."
Well, yes, that seems uncontroversial.
The part that looked wrong to me was the causal link; that there was an implied direction between good work coming first and the flourishing part coming second. Therefore, by changing the structure of 'work', we could create the environment for more people to flourish.
That doesn’t look true to me…
The organisers of the UBI event (like many of us) are operating on an assumption that 'good work' is a 'thing' and that it has meaning.
Whereas ‘work’ is simply a word that we’ve put around daily activities. Activities that once were the defined by basic survival needs, and developed into a means of trading time for money to exchange for goods and services.
Along the way, factory owners created working hours and a working week, and separated the time we spend in work from the time we spend at home, in leisure activities, in our volunteer activities.
Even though we may have put a time-box around one part of our lives, it’s still a box, and a box of our own creation. No matter how deep-rooted the traditions around it, they are all ways of describing those time-boxes.
Whatever we call it and however we colour it, it still amounts to an exchange of time for survival, even though we’ve added a few steps and some sophistication since the days of hunting and gathering. However we colour the box, or the wrapping paper, it doesn’t fundamentally change the fact we made up the definition of work.
We get lost in the creation and forget we assigned the meaning to it in the first place.
A Bus Trip to Llandudno
It reminded me of a discussion I'd had with a client recently. We'd been talking about his neighbours and how happy they seemed in their retirement—planning cruises and travelling the world.
I want that,
he told me.
but I bet it has nothing to do with money. I bet they'd be just as happy taking a bus trip to Llandudno.
We forget that it’s the nature of engaging in something that creates the fun, not the shape and colour of the thing itself. Maybe my clients neighbours would prefer London to Llandudno if their cash didn’t stretch to Barbados, but the happiness they’re deriving is coming from the relationship and their engagement witht he creative process, not the exotic locations.
A Stressful Job?
In my career, I've had what looked like great jobs from the outside, and I've felt 'meh', and I've had tough jobs and been fine.
My experience comes from how I'm creating it from the inside. Yes, of course, I might choose to move on from those jobs I like less, but I've still managed to find camaraderie and a sense of fun with colleagues whatever the work looks like.
I've also seen that one person who doesn't respond the same way as another in the same job. In fact, I remember a colleague replacing someone in what had been labelled a 'stressful job' and relishing the challenge, enjoying turning around the 'difficult' customers and not being at all affected by a seemingly heavy workload.
If that's possible then it means that it isn't the job that's fundamentally fixed; the job doesn't create the experience of the person doing it. Which means there must be something else going on.
In the UK, there are no specific proposals around Universal Basic Income (UBI) but the informal word on the (economic) avenue is that the payment might be in the region of £3,000 a year.
Sure, that might provide a temporary boost for some people, and it might well provide much-needed practical assistance for others.
But well-being and happiness?
Because that's an inside job.
The more we understand that our well-being comes from within, the more we can create—and live out—our own personal definition of good work.
Just like my client's neighbours—they'd be happy wherever they went on holiday—it was what meaning they were making of it, the state of mind they showed up with, not where they were going that was creating their joyfulness.
It's a Game!
I think the words of Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, and talking about the changing face of work, sum it up rather well,
"... the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles... People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.
"But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already."
Of course, our external circumstances have some practical impact—how much we get paid dictates where we can live, whether we can send our children to private school and what kind of holidays we can go on.
But the meaning we assign to all of that comes from our imagination.
It doesn't dictate our well-being and it doesn't —it can't!—make us happy. That comes from the very nature of being human.
P.S. I realise UBI is a sophisticated discussion, and I'm not attempting to capture it all here. The notion, though, that there is a link between 'good work' and well-being is fundamentally the wrong way round.
Since the concept of work is so clearly made-up, I can make it whatever I want. The more well-being I have, the more I can create something that looks like 'good work' to me. Like the two people who found the same job stressful and not-stressful—each of them created that meaning and associated it (wrongly) with the job.
We live in a world of our own imaginings, which can be immense fun or it can be immensely hard. Either way, let's not pretend it's the same as truth.
You've heard a snippet of what I think about some of these issues—I'd love to hear some of what you think...