Meaningful Livelihoods

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Meaningful livelihoods that allow people to meet their other needs

In a world where so much important work is being left undone, where needs are not being met and resources not being cared for appropriately, there should be no shortage of meaningful livelihoods anywhere on the planet.

As members of the human community, we wish to make contributions to the larger community while providing for ourselves, commensurate with our abilities and our aspirations. We also expect commensurate support in return, which allows us to live in dignity. This is what earning a livelihood means; it may involve work for a monetary income, but it may also mean work in the household, and production for subsistence or barter. No person should be forced into work that they do not wish to do; if a job creates such hardship that nobody will voluntarily do it, payments or other rewards should be increased until somebody does voluntarily do it, or some way should be found to make that kind of labor unnecessary. In all cases, working people should have a large degree of autonomy, and share in the decisions that affect their working conditions and the benefits they gain from their work. Compensation for work must be large enough so that every working person can satisfy all their important needs. Under these conditions, any work that contributes productively to society can be meaningful. Any other type of work (for example, occupations that increase human misery) should be made unnecessary and eliminated. All these considerations should apply equally to all people, regardless of gender, skin color, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, religious or ideological belief, and so on. Then, we would live in a condition of abundance as far as work and livelihoods are concerned.

Relationships to other needs

“Clean air to breathe”

“Clean water to drink, for cleanliness, for cooking and as habitat”

People should not be exposed to polluted air or water at the workplace. There is important work to be done to assure that our air and water remain clean, and under exceptional conditions that work may require exposure to polluted air or water, but ultimately the goal must be to generate minimal pollution in the first place.

“Sufficient and nutritious food, appropriate to one’s cultural preferences and taste”

This is an important area where many jobs should be provided; income for all paid jobs needs to be sufficient to afford a healthy, nutritious diet.

“Being at home in the place where one lives”

Having a meaningful livelihood is a key aspect of being at home in a place.

“Mobility to reach the places one needs to go, with appropriate modes of transportation”

In many urban areas, particularly in cities where public transport is inadequate, there is a “spatial mismatch,” making it difficult for people from low-income areas to reach the locations where jobs are available. In such situations, either job opportunities need to emerge near where people live, or public transport needs to be improved.

“Security from bodily, emotional, and mental harm; this includes security when one cannot take care of oneself (e.g., in infancy and childhood, in old age, or due to illness or disability)”

Working and middle-class people all over the world are forced into jobs they dislike and to accept unacceptable working conditions by lack of economic security. Basic security is essential to create a truly free labor market – that is, a labor market in which every worker can freely decline any job offer.

A meaningful livelihood conversely is an important condition for security, including food security, security in the case of illness, security in the face of old age.

“Clothing appropriate to one’s cultural and individual preferences, and the climate”

“Shelter/housing appropriate to one’s cultural and individual preferences, and the climate”

As for all other needs, a meaningful livelihood needs to provide for adequate clothing and shelter.

Many livelihoods are obtained within people's residences, including householding, many subsistence activities, and many artisanal occupations.

“Supportive relationships with other people, relationships that empower, that contribute to a gain in personal energy rather than an energy drain”

The relationships at work should be supportive and empowering.

People who have a meaningful and remunerative livelihood can effectively support others, including children, the elderly, the sick and the handicapped.

“Opportunities to learn anything and everything relevant to one's life”

Any livelihood requires learning to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge; all people must have access to learning opportunities if they are to have access to economic opportunities.

“Participation in collective economic and political decision-making”

A meaningful occupation must include participation in decision-making at the workplace.

“Having enough time to relax, to think, to imagine, to enjoy life, to play, to be alone”

“Spiritual connection with one’s deeper self and with a transcendent unity”

One works in order to live, one does not live in order to work. Therefore, a meaningful occupation must allow enough time, before or after the work day, on weekdays and holidays, and during vacations, to allow for other things in life.

“A freely chosen life direction”

A meaningful livelihood is a major aspect of most people's freely chosen life direction, though it need not be the only one. For example, the freely chosen life direction can include the practice of an art form without expecting that to yield an income.

Understanding patterns of abundance and scarcity

A meaningful livelihood is often regarded as a luxury only available to the well-educated or the rich – it is regarded as something very scarce. All the rest of us are supposed to simply accept whatever the labor market offers us, whether that's work on the assembly-line factory job, as an accountant, a salesperson, a marketer, a garbage collector, or a prostitute. This represents a very high degree of alienation. However, it need not be so.

The alienation on the job market results from the ways work is organized. One of the key factors that make employment as such scarce, even when there is very much work that needs to be done but which is undone, is the division between capitalists (owners of the means of production) and workers (everyone who works for a salary or wage, regardless of the kind of occupation). Capitalists do not have an interest in full employment, because in that case workers will only work if they are offered sufficiently high payment, and wages will increase. Only if most workplaces were collectively owned by the people working there (i.e., if they were worker cooperatives) would employers (i.e., the worker-owners) prioritize good working conditions, adequate wages, and full employment over the maximization of profits. If most companies were worker cooperatives, even privately owned companies would have to offer better working conditions in order to attract workers.

Meaningful work has also been made scarce by expropriating local and indigenous communities of their land and other natural resources. If people have control over the land, water and biological resources that they need in order to provide for their needs, they can employ themselves, and decide for themselves how much they wish to produce for their subsistence needs directly, and how much they wish to produce for market or other exchange. Therefore, land and natural resource rights of local and indigenous communities need to be recognized or restored in order to ensure that they enjoy plentiful, self-determined livelihoods.

Huge numbers of people are denied the more desirable or high-status livelihoods, or the education that is needed in order to qualify for those jobs, on the basis of their gender, their “race” (which is itself a social construct), their ethnic or national origin, their sexual orientation, their religion, or other similar characteristics. This is an imposed scarcity; abundance would mean that all people could aspire to the full range of occupations available in a society.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) provide the majority of livelihoods in many countries around the world. Although these are not typically organized as worker cooperatives, the distinction between capitalist and worker is often fuzzy in these enterprises, because the owner also does a large share of the work, a large number of the workers may become owners either of the enterprise where they are working or of a newly founded enterprise, and workers may informally share in a considerable portion of decision-making. Economic policies should thus be favorable to SMEs, to encourage their creation and success.

A lot of work that needs to be done is left undone, because too little is done to prevent environmental harms and to correct the environmental harms that have already been done. This is because profit-maximizing companies avoid paying for the environmental costs they create, and government is unable to raise sufficient taxes to pay for all the cleanup. If environmental resources were managed as commons however, all users of the commons would have to contribute to the maintenance of those commons, generating meaningful employment in the protection of environmental quality.

Many people who have found a remunerative livelihood do not find it meaningful, because it does not reflect their deep aspirations of what they want to do in life. They remain employed in their present jobs either because they are afraid of the transition (which may involve a period of time without income or require large investments), or they fear that the kind of job that they really would like to do would not pay enough to support themselves and possibly a family, or they do not know how to make the transition, or they have not taken the time to really answer the question of what they want in life. Any projects that can help people make such transitions to work that they would enjoy most, and where they could make the most substantial contribution to society, would promote abundance – placing more people into truly meaningful jobs.

Most people with few capital resources do not risk becoming self-employed, starting their own company, or joining with others to start a cooperative because failure could mean destitution, and because a substantial amount of capital would have to be raised first. This means that they have only their labor to sell to potential employers, putting them at a severe disadvantage. Social welfare systems alleviate this problem to some extent in some of the wealthy countries, but as presently instituted, they usually create a disincentive to work at the low end of the income spectrum (where accepting a part-time job may cost an employee so much in foregone welfare payments that it's not worth working). Social welfare also fails to generate sufficient security for the risk involved in starting an own enterprise. The solution to this would consist of an unconditional basic income, paid out to all residents of a country no matter how much or little they earned. Then, earning even a small amount would make somebody better off (i.e., there would always be an incentive for paid work), and people starting a small business of their own could weather a period of time without income until their investments of time, effort and money started paying off. The revenue for such a guaranteed basic income could be generated from natural resource rents, that is, the income generated from charging users or polluters and users of natural resources that we all own in common.

Approaches to creating greater abundance

  • land and natural resource rights for local and indigenous communities
  • natural resource trusts and commons
  • guaranteed basic income based on natural resource rents
  • equal rights for women, oppressed ethnic or religious minorities, homosexuals, etc.
  • worker cooperatives
  • policies to support worker cooperatives
  • policies supporting SMEs
  • alternative currencies that can support independent livelihoods
  • education that supports individuals' quest for meaning in life
  • programs to support people transitioning to jobs they find more meaningful

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