The future of work

What meaningful jobs will exist in the future ecological society?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

- ‘The Summer Day’, Mary Oliver

Doomsday scenarios get all the press. They’re perversely compelling, like watching a disaster film unfold; they also have the side-effect of rendering you passive. But another world is taking shape, and by giving it our attention, imaginative efforts and action, we can help to bring it about.

It’s a hard fact that the pandemic has slashed many people’s income, that it has deepened inequality, and is set to plunge countries into recession. So as “the new normal” is re-packaged as a shiny concession for those who can afford it, we need to start looking out for more inspiring alternatives. Because we deserve so much more than a return ticket to the way things were. As Earth’s most powerful voices, we’ve got to demand a fast-track to a truly sustainable future.

Inspiration comes from unlikely places. In Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, the writer visits a luxury bunker site in South Dakota, tech billionaires’ bolt-holes in New Zealand, and Chernobyl. Something about the sheer awfulness of these places prompted me to ask: what does the opposite of the end of the world look like?

What would a photo negative of these dark spots be?

Working backwards may be a clearer way of envisaging the best world possible. From these bleak outposts, O’Connell reels back to an opposite notion: community. Living together, rather than surviving alone on freeze-dried foodstuffs, or behind unassailable wealth. Community should be a touchstone for architects of the future (everyone). It is a word you’ll hear repeated in constructive conversations, and it’s why the future of work is so exciting. I spoke to pioneers in art, energy, fashion, engineering and ecological regeneration – each of them just one individual in their communities, pointing towards a wildly possible future.

Charlotte Webster, founder of environmental art organisation Human Nature:

I think it’s ways of working that will change. There needs to be a lot more cross-pollination of ideas between scientists and creatives.

One of Louis Masai's murals in Bristol

Watermelon seeds: working the land and alternative living

The poet Rebecca Tamás’s new book Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, out in autumn, is a deep-rooted exploration of what it means to live in a connected world. She takes the Diggers – a radical 17th century group who broke away from commercial society to cultivate the English common land – as an early Western example of human and nonhuman communal living. Reclaiming ‘watermelon’, the pejorative name for eco-socialists (“green on the outside but red on the inside”) she argues that the Diggers’ struggle for land and freedom provides a powerful model.

Rebecca told me: “If we’re thinking about all these practical things around food distribution and farming and growing our own vegetables, it’s not just some sort of puritanical thing that we have to undergo. Those are things that build community and connection and a sense of love for the non-human world. Once we look at things slightly differently, we recognise that it’s actually not just about what we’re going to lose, it’s also about what we’re going to gain.”

Cover of the Transition Town book

Less long-haul flights, no next-day jumpers or distant fruit deliveries then, but moving in smaller circles can bring us back to our human-sized potential. Ushering in slower, companionable travel, for instance. As environmental consciousness grows, Rebecca predicts a huge growth in green jobs, and a greater appreciation of how much farmers do for the land: taking care of paths, woods and other areas. “I think both stewardship and food creation are going to become more and more important, and become the kind of jobs that are more desirable and aspirational than they are now.” As a starting point, we need more people to join the legal fight giving rights to nature, re-defining the terms from which human and non-human equality can proceed.

Will there be more poets in utopia? “Absolutely,” she said, “utopia would be somewhere in which everyone could be a poet and you don’t need a special type of academic career, or a literary prize to be recognised as someone who’s capable of creating meaningful art.” We need eco-poets now, because poetry “can genuinely change how we think”.

An extract from her spellbinding poem ‘Communist Ghost’ shows this radical potential.

Working less and living more?

Marx still haunts the discussion on work/life balance. Over 200 years after the Diggers sowed, he declared that: “the shortening of the working-day is [freedom’s] basic prerequisite.” For Aidan Harper, researcher at the New Economics Foundation and member of the 4 Day Week Campaign, time freed “carries within it the potential for an entire new world.”

With more time, we could be living more joyful and sustainable lives – our focus moving to time-intensive projects, rather than carbon-intensive ones. Like cycling, cooking with fresh ingredients, repairing, self-educating, building relationships. But obviously these activities don’t happen in a vacuum. Policy environments shape our behaviours; studies show that reducing working time in Germany has the potential to cut carbon emissions far more than in the US, because of the accessibility of public transport and free green spaces.

“What the pandemic has done is kind of smash open the notion that the way we work is somehow natural and inevitable,” said Aidan. Like any crisis it offers a turning point, a chance to reevaluate work and free time. Power relations are key to what comes next, as they are in meeting the rising challenge of robotics. Trade unions have long argued for shortened hours to fairly distribute what work remains. They’re ready for “industry 4.0”, but tensions around carbon-intensive work rumble on, and the transition to “good unionised green jobs” has got to get more granular.

Power to the people

A report from Energy Watch Group and Finland’s ULT University last year showed that 100% renewable energy was possible by 2050, and would employ 35 million people worldwide, with 22 million of those jobs in solar. If the roll out of renewables is democratised, it will spark more localised employment. Solar is already transforming livelihoods in the global south: 94% of customers in East Africa and South Asia reported quality of life improvements, with more light hours to work and study.

In Bangladesh, home solar system owners are trading surplus electricity with their neighbours, creating a network of micro-systems. Solar entrepreneur Howard Johns believes this offers a window into how things could change in the UK, where a massive programme of retro-fitting is needed to revolutionise fossil fuelled infrastructure. In a distributed system, Howard said: “people have got to get their heads round the fact that they will be participating far more actively in power.” Smart grid innovators, IT engineers and electric vehicle connectors are some foreseeable trades in the evolving tale of community energy.

From under the shadow of Chernobyl, Schönau in southern Germany offers a striking example of people power. The town bought back their local electricity grid in 1997, and now supplies around 170,000 people with clean energy

Undoing the exploitation of Earth

Most of us wouldn’t think about how to save the world when looking into a pint. But for three Dutch friends behind prize-winning start up The Great Bubble Barrier, that is exactly how they dreamed up an elegant solution to plastic pollution. Watching the bubbles rise in their beer gave them the seed of an idea: to plant a perforated tube on the river bed, creating a curtain of air bubbles that stops plastic and guides it to a catchment system. The first long-term Bubble Barrier is installed in Amsterdam's Westerdok canal which is one end of the monumental canals of Amsterdam and an exit to the river IJ making smart use of the current without disrupting fish migration.

The team has connected with others in the oceans solutions community. It’s “a small world” says comms lead Sandy Reitsma, and they’re often compared to The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch NGO using interceptors and other technologies to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The bubblers have big future plans: after Europe, they want to travel to the most polluted rivers in Asia, recruiting more project engineers and local coordinators along the way.

Regenerative systems

At the heart of Notes from an Apocalypse, O’Connell describes reading Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax to his son. The Lorax emerged from the first felled Truffula tree, in a now treeless landscape, and his final words to the young reader boulder through the decades:

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

The Once-ler – a sinister, towered character responsible for this rampant destruction – throws something down to the child: the last Truffula seed in existence, and tells him to grow a forest, to re-create a world in which the Lorax and his friends may come back. It’s a heartbreaking message to pass on, 50 years after it was written, notes O’Connell; in Great Thunberg’s words: how dare you.

Children fasten us to the future. People working in ecological restoration are especially mindful of this, sharing tools and knowledge with schools. Regenerative Agroforestry Impact Network (RAIN) builds partnerships between Brazilian and British schools, supporting them to create sapling nurseries whilst encouraging cultural exchange. Founder Danny Diskin says that RAIN is borne from the question: “what kind of intelligence would a networked system of young people generate in order to deal with the problems we haven't been able to?”

Trees are replanted at local reforestation sites; in Brazil, at the edge of rivers and dried-up springs. Diskin is an advocate of agroforestry – growing trees among crops – to produce a higher yield over a longer harvest season. His organisational politics lie in mutual aid (the kind that has been key to coronavirus support groups), and his vision of the future is one of “small, highly biodiverse and fairly self-contained communities”, informed by indigenous ways of living.

Children build a sapling structure - photo credit RAIN

Regenerating ecosystems is both critically real and highly philosophical. Andreas Kornevall from Earth Restoration Service (ERS) is a proponent of the “let it be” school. He handles his message with care: “One seed can restore almost the whole world [...] Inside the seed there is a dream, there is an idea that it wants to become a tree and then it wants to become a forest, so trees are much better planters and designers than we are.”

Though giving over land to nature is precisely un-laborious, Andreas imagines a plethora of new jobs: someone to map all the dirty rivers, someone else to identify all the spaces where biodiversity can be increased, and a host of volunteers. In all his grassroots experience, “there’s nothing more joyous than a community coming together to plant a woodland,” which is always cause for a party.

Crafting circular economies

In the fashion sector, roles will get an ethical upgrade. Stitched Up is a sustainable clothing hub in Manchester which runs sewing and upcycling workshops using donated textiles. The community benefits are manifold, as courses offer a warm social setting for those facing mental health challenges, with the feel-good knowledge that they are crafting sustainably. Co-founder Bryony Moore said: “We’d love to see a fashion future where every single community has a sustainable clothing hub, where people can go to fix and upcycle their clothes, and find low cost second-hand clothing options like clothes swaps.”

Stitched up cooperative

Josefa Buckland, founder of baby and toddler clothes rental service Graceful Changes, is feeling positive. “What is good about the circular economy from my point of view is that it would create loads of jobs in Scotland,” she said, such as maintaining and washing clothes in-house. Whilst the carbon savings are immense: around 20-43 tonnes per year for every 100 subscribers. Since baby clothes aren’t exactly high fashion, Josefa sees her work as close to that of a thing-librarian, a curator at the tool sharing centres that are popping up around the world.

The caring economy

At times, visions of the future can feel caught between a romanticised notion of the past and a technological fantasy. It is important to remember that meaningful jobs will be the same.

“The stuff I’m really interested in,” said NEF’s Aidan, “is the caring economy, and the potential for a society which values traditionally feminised forms of work.” He continued: “If you had mass unionised nurses, social care workers, cleaners – essentially those we now recognise as key workers – and if they could use their collective power [...] then our world would be a hell of a lot better.” A recent addition to our economic vocabulary, furloughing has fascinating potential to rewire economies with an environmental strategy in mind. The job retention scheme could be used to reskill people for healthcare and conservation based careers. In fact the government has already shown some initiative here, with the recent announcement of a green jobs challenge fund.

So what does the opposite of the end of the world look like? It’s hard to say exactly, only that you’ll recognise it when you see it, from all the familiar places: community action, connection, love. It is found in clever, ecologically attuned solutions, global solidarity, co-operative energy, community farms, and – a response from Rebecca Tamás that delighted me – protest.

Whilst coronavirus and the downturn threaten the economy as we know it, there are green shoots giving us hope that a new world is emerging. Young people concerned for their future don’t need to join dreaded queues at the job centre. In whatever form social closeness takes, we have to get together and start discussing the brightest options; seek out forward-thinking people and organisations who are co-creating the ecological world; and pass it on.

“What will you do now with the gift of your left life?”

- ‘Snow’, Carol Ann Duffy