Chasing economic growth drives climate change, causes environmental degradation and threatens the future of the next generation. Nevertheless, the imperative of economic growth remains deeply ingrained in the minds and actions of policy-makers all across Europe and the political spectrum. This is not surprising. After all, a dip in economic growth such as the one caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has devastating consequences for people and the planet as our system is dependent on economic growth.
We are trapped in a so-called endless treadmill: we need to be more and more productive, to produce more and to expand our economies to avoid unemployment. Essentially, you must keep going if you don’t want to fall off the treadmill. What’s worse, given the impacts on our ecosystem, we’re burning out from driving consumption and production, so is our planet. Many people have to work under precarious conditions, without enough money in their pockets to make it to the next paycheque.
Besides, the current economic system based on marketized employment does not recognize caring and reproductive activities that are often unpaid but essential for the functioning of the economy and the sustainability of our life. With care and reproductive activities, I am referring to child and elderly care, housework, midwifery, healthcare etc. Our economies are so to say separated in a productive sphere that includes all the market goods and services, and in a reproductive sphere, the non-monetized, unpaid, and unrecognized caring activities (largely invisible for the economy). As women had been historically responsible for the reproductive or maintenance economy, the impacts of this divide are still present today. Despite the recent changes of the role of women, the classical career model still favours men and women are still mostly responsible for care activities perpetuating the gender-based differentiation of breadwinning and caregiving. In cases where the care activities have been commodified, these are usually low-paid, informal and exposed to rather critical working conditions drenched under the economic rationale of time and cost efficiency. For example, a New Economic Foundation (NEF) study that compared different professions and their value for society found that a high investment banker in London with one of the highest earnings actually costs society £7 for every £1 they earn. A childcare worker, on the other hand, generates for every £1 they are paid between £7 and £9.50 worth of benefits to society. Looking at the salary scale, a top city/investment banker earns on average between £500.000–£1.000.000 and a childcare worker between £10,000–£13,000 in the UK (more examples in the NEF study).
An increasing aging population in Europe has further stimulated the migration of mostly eastern European or non-European women to provide care work with devastating impacts for their own families as well as societies (this phenomenon is referred to as care drain). The pandemic has only exacerbated the care crisis and highlighted the unfair distribution of how care is organized now.
For all of these reasons, we need to radically rethink the way we work and to introduce alternative policy options such as a Universal Basic Income, Job Guarantee Scheme, worksharing and working time reduction policies. Take for example working time reductions: there exist different concepts of how that might look like such as shorter working weeks, months, life, but with no reduction in pay, they allow to distribute the freed up hours more evenly among workers. Shortening working hours could also bring environmental and wellbeing benefits. Studies show that longer working hours are associated with higher environmental footprints. Less time spent at work is good for the wellbeing of workers too. It can reduce stress and the risk of burnouts. It frees people to pursue leisure and creative activities, redistribute unpaid care activities or increase political participation which would then also have positive effects on democracy. But here again, it is important to apply a feminist lense when designing these policies. For example, one of the most elaborated working time reduction proposals is the ‘’Friday off’’ with a clear focus on ecological concerns, as one day less of commuting is assumed to alleviate environmental pressures. One could argue that this addresses mainly paid work in the monetized economy and cannot directly cause men to take up a larger part in daily caring activities. Hence, a more feminist approach to reduced working hours might rather be focused on reducing the length of the working day instead of one day off.
There is no clear blueprint for the way ahead and what works best, this really depends on the specific context. Most of the post-growth policies might also be stand-alone options, others might be complementary. What is important is to start an open discussion and to explore these options to make ‘’work’’ work and to enhance equality.