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What Work Needs to be Done in the Social Economy, or

How Can the Individual Create Social Capital?

There’s unlimited amounts of work in the social economy because it’s immune to technology.

Jeremy Rifkin

PREMISE 1: In the long run, technology destroys more jobs than it creates. This means that eventually there will be many more people who need incomes than there are jobs to provide those incomes. Therefore, unless we abandon the idea that an income is conditional on a job, we can look forward to more and more people living in poverty in technologically advanced societies.

PREMISE 2: In a country that can afford it, government has a duty to provide an income to those for whom the economy can’t provide a job. They can “earn” that income by doing work in the social economy.

Human beings have three basic material needs: food, clothing, and shelter. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to supply these needs for oneself. Fortunately, thanks to specialization and advanced technology, five to ten percent of the population is able to feed, clothe and house everyone—at least in developed countries. Again, in developed countries, another 15 to 20 percent of the population can produce all our manufactured goods. That leaves, say, 75 percent of the population to provide services in retail, health care, education, public works, transportation, engineering, government, law, research, etc. However, it’s becoming clearer all the time that there are too few decent jobs in the service economy for the 75 percent of the population that need decent incomes. What can be done to rectify this situation?

In 1995 Jeremy Rifkin, author of The End of Work, said in an interview, ‘There’s unlimited amounts of work in the social economy [or civic sector] because it’s immune to technology.’ If Rifkin is correct, then the social economy is the place to look for useful work for those who can’t find work in agriculture, manufacturing, or the service economy. However, even though many pressing human needs go unmet, such as the need for companionship, it is not easy to organize those needs, convert them into salaried jobs, and then find among the unemployed or underemployed the people whose skills and circumstances make it practical for them to respond to these needs. In fact, it’s so difficult to address complex and endlessly varied human needs by trying to match them with the growing number of people who need useful and adequately paid work that we may have to adopt an entirely new approach. That approach will probably mean abandoning the age-old insistence that an income is conditional on a job. Specifically, we need to institute, firstly, a universal basic (or guaranteed) income to provide everyone with a measure of economic security, and, secondly, we have to encourage volunteerism and the creation of social capital (Wikipedia being a good example) by fostering unstructured, unregulated, uncredentialed, un-institutionalized work in the social economy.

What kind of work would that mainly be? Perhaps we should reformulate the question by asking, “What important human needs are not being met?” By identifying the worst evils of the modern age (and possibly every age) the answer to our question may become obvious. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the worst evils are loneliness, boredom, and the indifference of others. Now, curing or lessening these evils is not rocket science. All of us are doing it to various degrees all the time. Nevertheless, two things are clear: 1) a lot of loneliness, boredom, and indifference (of the types that can be cured or lessened) is left unaddressed, and 2) even though curing or lessening these evils is often hard work, it’s not work that readily lends itself to being compensated—except through the mechanism of a guaranteed income. Thus, a basic income seems to be the simplest and most efficient way of compensating work that some people—mainly women—have always done on a volunteer basis, but would probably be done more fully, willingly, and conscientiously if it was recognized as important as paid work. Paid work has more prestige than unpaid work because money confers status. But it should always be remembered that paid work is only paid because it has been practical to integrate it into the formal economy, and not necessarily because it’s more important than unpaid work.

Now for the difficult part. What kind of work or activity should people who are receiving a basic income (or even people who are not receiving a basic income because society is not yet ready to take that step) be encouraged to do? There is no simple answer because the available work in the social economy is as diverse and complicated as human needs. But if we had to reduce the largest part of it to one word, that word would probably be “education,” where education means liberal education in the broadest sense. Education, in this sense, would include anything that one person wants to learn and another person is prepared to teach or explain, from cooking to Bell’s Theorem. It would include anything that somebody wants to discuss with others who share the same interest, whether it be theoretical or practical, intellectual or artistic. In conclusion, it is our hope that free, informal, uncredentialed, Internet-assisted education of some description will turn out to be the best and most readily available antidote to the perennial age-old enemies of enjoyment, namely, loneliness, boredom, and human indifference.

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