Where Should We Go From Here?

Despite the fears we are encouraged to have about taking risks as we age, it may well be that we will all find ourselves increasingly forced to take those risks due to the wider social and economic changes that confront us. We live at a time when there are an unprecedented number of people living healthily into old age. This increased longevity is happening in post industrial societies where technological advances, the globalisation and rationalisation of business and the fragility of economics systems all conspire to reduce the work force. There are presently few solutions as to how the burgeoning ‘silver’ generation will fund or occupy themselves.

The French Philosopher Andre Gorz wrote back in 1989 in his Critique of Economic Reason:

Neither is it true any longer that the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be. In a post-industrial society, not everyone has to work hard to survive, though may be forced to anyway due to the economic system.

Gorz understood that these changes would create an increasing tension between the long-held values of our work-based society and a reduced labour market, many members of which would find themselves redundant or surplus to requirement.

This important conjunction between the changes in our working lives and an ever aging and expanding population competing for fewer jobs, suggests that we need a radical rethink in our attitudes to work and its true meaning and value:

The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as yet unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more but by producing differently, producing other things or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact.

As this seismic shift in our economies and culture continues to unfold, Gorz’s words have a powerful truth about them; they suggest that now is the perfect moment to reassess how our lives might be lived more effectively, particularly as we age. The economic problems that currently face the western world mean that the raising of the retirement age is now a reality. The fantasy of early retirement for many will be a financial impossibility, a great many of us being forced to work on into our seventies. For some, this prospect holds many benefits; retirement can be an extremely difficult time for those who just don’t feel ready to throw in the towel; loving a job and being forced to leave can be deeply traumatic. Others might find themselves financially trapped in work that is unfulfilling, the thought of yet more years of labour enforced by personal economic imperatives signalling a bleak future. Of course, our extended working lives are actually dependent on there being available jobs and the wider long-term prospects appear contradictory. What seems likely in the current climate is that many of us, as we age, we will be forced out of the mainstream competitive job markets by younger, cheaper applicants and find ourselves taking a cut in wage and perhaps forced to accept less skilled or satisfying work.

The prejudices about aging may be as entrenched as ever but the certainties about our working lives are clearly breaking down. As Gorz predicted, this situation sits uneasily aside the values about work that have held dominance in the west for many years. There is a work ethic that runs deep within western capitalist countries that has it roots in Lutheranism and Calvinism, traditions that promoted one’s vocation or daily work as a form of devotion to God. There is something deeply attractive about this idea of making one’s work a sacred act, however for Luther and Calvin, their puritan values placed strong dictates on what would be understood as acceptable or worthy work. One need only look at the ambitions of Victorian Industrialists to see how these values distorted even further to produce what where pretty questionable business practices that made massive profits from the exploitation of the poor and disadvantaged. It is now readily acknowledged that Britain’s rise to economic dominance in the 19th Century could never have happened without the use of child labour and slavery. Weber argued that those good Christian God-fearing industrialists could justify their actions as the ‘rational pursuit of economic gain and worldly activities dedicated to it’; crucially framing this with the Calvinist notion that such ‘pursuit’ was ‘endowed with a moral and spiritual significance’.

As society has become increasingly secular, the spiritual significance may have lessened but the moral dictates remain as strong. People often become deeply upset at the thought that others might be avoiding work; to work is to contribute to the wider society, most obviously in the paying of taxes but also in a more intangible sense of playing one’s part. To choose not to work, a person could be perceived as setting themselves apart from or above the mass, of leaching off it whilst giving nothing back. Our own work ethic has made it difficult for us to perhaps acknowledge that a great deal of the anger we might feel at the thought of others shirking honest labour is rooted in the dissatisfaction we might secretly or subconsciously harbour about our own working lives. It also ignores perhaps the deeper, more unpalatable truth that a great many jobs have very little true meaning or value at all beyond that they are work for work’s sake. This is troubling enough but there is also the fact that as a society we are yet to fully acknowledge that many of our jobs might contribute to environmental or social problems, leading to real suffering and deprivation for others. If we take the example of western companies employing eastern sweat shops, these products sold by western employees, it becomes apparent that the moral dictates of our work ethic are truly problematic ones.

As the world of work drastically changes, perhaps we need to come to an honest examination of what work actually means to us. Is it merely a method of financial survival? Something we endure as a duty, playing our part despite the unhappiness it might cause us or others? Or – considering the time we spend doing it – should it be something that positively exploits our talents, helps us to learn and grow as human beings? Wouldn’t it better serve us for our work to contribute to the world in ways that have depth and meaning, helping to create a society built not on exploitation and inequality but upon values that support human development and well-being?

For those of us who have reached middle age and beyond, given all our life experience, given that we sense the pressures of mortality more acutely and have a deeper understanding of how precious and short-lived our time here is, could we not set ourselves as the vanguard for a new approach?  If we find ourselves unfairly scuppered by a work market that is increasingly ageist whilst demanding that we continue to work, then is it not time to challenge the role that work plays in our lives and reclaim our passions as our work?

How we balance economic prosperity with individual and collective well-being is a vast and complex issue which cannot be answered here. However, a good place to make a start in reclaiming our work as our passion – long into old age – is to give ourselves permission to reject the old work ethic. With age we should defiantly asks ourselves – without embarrassment – the truly big questions. Why are we here? Why as individuals do we possess the gifts that we born with? Why does our society not care enough about all of us, regardless of age, being given the opportunity to express those gifts, that each might truly contribute in a personally meaningful way?

 

 

 

 

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