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Sustainable Occupation beyond the Economic Rationale: Reframing employment, non-profit-making and voluntary


Sustainable Occupation beyond the "Economic" Rationale
Enabling the emergence of solutions

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There is now official recognition that "full employment", as traditionally conceived, is no longer an option in an increasingly globalized, industrialized society. There is also increasing official recognition that demographic evolution, and aging of populations, will progressively undermine the financial viability of "social safety nets" already contracted and will prevent their implementation elsewhere. It is also recognized that educational systems are producing graduates for whom there is no employment in the disciplines in which they were educated and that the possibility of educating a person "for a job" is increasingly problematic.

These realizations are independent of other concerns relating to the destabilization of societies (non-renewable resources, pollution, global warming, vulnerable international financial system, organized crime, etc). This situation follows from a number of decades of strategies of "international development" -- primarily influenced by an "economic rationale" and, more recently, by the logic of "globalization".

The supporters of the economic rationale justified the dominance of their paradigm by pointing to the "Asian Tigers" but proved significantly unable to foresee the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 to which globalization rendered those countries vulnerable. In the early months of 1998, these supporters engaged in an undignified exercise of blaming each other for the debacle. However they still lay claim to a monopoly on the insight through which such difficulties can be remedied. It is on the basis of their rationale that promises of a "better life" continue to be made -- provided, as always, that austerity is practiced in the shorter term in order to increase productivity. Such promises increasingly lack credibility to those faced with challenges of daily life.

Recognition of the failure of mega-projects has already forced reluctant mainstream attention on such facilities as microcredits and alternative currency systems. With a degree of desperation, it is within this context that emphasis is also being placed on the "employment" opportunities offered by the burgeoning network of "voluntary" and "non-profit" organizations in developing "sustainable community", notably in rural areas. The concern here is with the meaning to be attached to these terms and the nature of the opportunity they represent.

In particular there is a danger that their meaning will tend to be derived primarily from the "economic rationale", in contrast to it, or as a complementary adjunct to it -- as a "face-saving" exercise following the demonstrable challenges to conventional thinking. As with the flourishing of "former resisters" in formerly occupied territories, once liberated, many "economists" enthusiastically exploring such alternatives may turn out to be "turncoats" -- "collaborators" who played a major role in blocking these same alternatives over past decades. Whilst the focus may appear to have changed, it is quite unclear whether the mindset giving rise to such problems has changed or that real lessons have been learnt. The question is whether an attempt should not be made to reframe possibilities in terms which do not derive their significance from a rationale that seems to be in process of both exacerbating the problems of the already impoverished and undermining the quality of life of those it appears to benefit.

What follows is not intended as yet another criticism of economics as a discipline. It is concerned with finding ways to identify and discuss what might be termed sustainable occupation and the contexts within which it might be viable. Under the circumstances, given the conceptual monopoly that economics has acquired, this can only be done by contrast with the manner in which it has focused attention on delivery of tangible products and related services. In so doing the insights of the discipline have not been applied to alternative, possibly subtler, patterns of exchange that may prove to be vital to the sustainability of community in turbulent times.

This arguments of this paper build on those in Being employed by the future: reframing the immediate challenge of sustainable community (1996) and in Sustainable lifestyles and the future of work: learnings from "The Employment Dilemma and the Future of Work" (1996). For the sake of brevity here, hyperlinks are made to points in those documents.

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