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The Work Project: Reimagining Work and Care

Image: Hilary Cottam

By Hilary Cottam

This is the third blog in a new series about the future of work. The series reflects on workshops that were held in five locations across Britain over the past two years. The project has been generously funded by Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundation and James Anderson.

In the first blog, I set out the context for this project: a shifting socio-economic paradigm driven by technology change, looming environmental catastrophe and the unaddressed legacies of injustice that mean we must think again about work. In the second blog I wrote about working time, here I address the loudest theme in the workshops: care.

The ‘juggle, juggle’; the attempt to manage lives of care and paid work was a constant refrain in the workshop conversations and cited as the biggest source of stress, uncertainty and difficulty by women and men.

A good working life would redraw the boundaries between care, kinship and work. This was rarely framed as the need for new services (although care services and paid care work were discussed). Rather it was a discussion about how to re-integrate the two activities core to our existence: production and reproduction.

Previously unimaginable re-drawings of work have happened before. Perhaps one of the most totemic was the introduction of the paid weekend. For workers who crowded into Britain’s cities at the start of the industrial revolution, the idea that they might be paid to rest on Saturdays and Sundays would have sounded fantastical. And yet it happened. Boots the Chemists was one of the first companies to introduce the paid weekend, in its Nottingham factory in 1934.

Those who participate in the workshops, who drive in the gig economy or who work constantly changing care shifts, know through bitter lived experience that such gains can be lost as well as won. Digital technology has made it possible to disaggregate work tasks and accumulated time, including time off. New technology creates rupture: spaces in which those freedoms can be lost (or reimagined) and spaces to imagine and agitate for new patterns and freedoms.

In this revolution can we reimagine care? Could we use the asynchronous potential of our digital era to redraw the boundaries between care and work in a gain as totemic as the paid weekend. This, for workshop participants, would define a good working life.

The Heart of the Matter

Writing the history of work, labour historians (almost always men) have focused on a struggle between hand and brain. This story is one of demise: the craft worker (who uses their brain and their hands) becomes the industrial worker who is forced to become a disembodied hand in a mechanised process. The work of mass production requires strict distinctions to be drawn between many hands and a few brains (the managers).

Harley Shaiken, a former Detroit auto worker who is now a professor, describes the indignity of the once skilled worker who becomes simply ‘a babysitter for a machine’.

From craftsman to babysitter: it’s an interesting metaphor and it draws attention to the critical element left out in this binary story: the heart. Hilary Rose, the British sociologist who has written extensively about science and technology stands in a long tradition of feminist scholarship when she points out that in this gendered struggle in which a few men have brain work and most are hands, women are all assigned the work of the heart (care and reproduction). If they have any time over they can do brain or hand work, but meanwhile, no-one remarks with outrage, if they are the babysitters.

‘Care is those things without which our lives do not work out.’ And it would be easy to argue, based on epidemics of mental illness, loneliness, the profound disease expressed in the workshops, our extractive and lopsided economies, ravaged places and much more, that things are currently ‘not working out’.

This idea that the work of caring for one another and for the places where we live is core to our humanity and our human wellbeing was well understood by our ancestors. In my work I draw often on Aristotle’s concept of flourishing, expressed as eudaimonia. For Aristotle, our lives take on a sense of well-being and meaning through collective tending of the home, the marketplace and societies’ wider institutions. A different and beautiful telling of this ancient balance is found in the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer and her descriptions of the way indigenous peoples think about the web of relationships and responsibilities that (re)generate both people and their places.

In the West this conception of human flourishing has gradually unravelled. Our implicit understanding of human thriving as a collective endeavour that involves caring for one another and the ecosystems we are part of, has been replaced by a utilitarian model best characterised by homo economicus and his ruthless, extractive quest for individual material gain. In this model, care is an industrial service, outsourced to (poorly paid) others, kept largely out of sight and almost only concerned with the individual human body, neglecting wider kinship structures and the earth from which they grow.

As I have written here there were good reasons for this shift, not least the realisation that care was increasingly not shared, but racialised and feminised. A world in which caring is neither shared nor valued oppresses. It becomes the ‘juggle juggle’ — the source of unease that everyone talked about in the workshops.

But today we see a hunger to reimagine these tensions and to think again. One in four British adults is attempting to care for someone around their work. ‘We shift jobs, we shift again, nothing quite seems to work out’, one assembly line worker told me in a story that became familiar: a constant search for a new job that might better accommodate care and the rest of life.

Growing numbers of us report that we want to put care for each other and the environment before money. It’s an idea that informs much of the new economic thinking I referred to in the last blog. The yearning is to bring brain, hands and heart together in new ways to do the work on which we all depend.

Care is everything we do to maintain and repair our world; ourselves, the places where we live and the ecosystems on which we depend.

This definition from Joan Tronto is a more expansive understanding of care which brings together concerns articulated within the workshops around the wish to care for and repair local places, nature and the people and families who call the places home. It situates the work of care as core to our economies and our very existence: no longer a cost, or something that must fit around ‘work’. Care becomes productive: the core work, the engineering of our century. Just as in successive technology revolutions, we celebrated (and rewarded) the design of canals, railways, bridges, roads: so now we must celebrate and reward this ‘soft’ infrastructure.

This new work will be understood for what it is, a craft that does not distinguish between our relationships to each other, to other beings and to place. Care is about time for ourselves, time with others, time to help and to be helped, to heal and repair our bodies, our communities and the nature around us. Care is the instinctive understanding expressed in the workshops that we are not separate from each other and that this work of love and nurture is not separate from us: something that can be costed, given to others, asked not to infect our working hours.

The contrast between what is required and the industrial sector today known as ‘care’ is painful. Care work — for children, older people and those who need other forms of support — is done in similarly oppressive conditions across the Western world. In Britain there are over 100,000 adult care vacancies because few can bear to do this human work in the inhuman conditions which are the sector’s norm: low pay, unpredictable hours and industrial time slots that do not allow for the rhythms and requirements of tending to others. In the US, federal policies rooted in the legacy of slavery have continued to reinforce labour market structures that contribute to low wages, a lack of protection and often predatory working conditions.

The work of environmental repair is escalating as we experience the increasingly devastating effects of extreme weather patterns. Alarmingly, in the U.S. a new industry has already been spawned: the so-called ‘Storm Chasers’. The Storm Chasers are usually undocumented migrants who travel behind the storms, working in unsafe, crowded conditions without protective clothing and, in the end often without pay as billion-dollar companies threaten their workforce with a call to the immigration services rather than pay the promised wages.

But in the ruins, alternatives are growing. Timewise works with a number of progressive employers and the local state, demonstrating that it is possible to offer good, flexible work that allows for time to care. Participating businesses have learnt — in an echo of the Kellogg’s experiment — that they attract talented, loyal and highly motivated workers that sustain their business’ development.

The most innovative new forms of care — such as Buurtzorg in the Netherlands — combine new ideas about work for their autonomous / owner workforce with ancient wisdom about care itself: allowing the time for deep community relationships. These are principles shared by Somerset Cares, Shared Lives, Social Care Future. And many new collaboratives are reimagining ways to care for social injustice and place. These collaboratives — for example, Healing Justice, Gentle Radical, Energy Garden––may not see themselves as ‘carers’, but their thinking and practice offers new ways to think about how we support all forms of life.

Care as currently conceived is a border war: the barricades have been erected between work and home, paid and unpaid work, between humans and wider webs of life, between man and woman, between generations, between hand, brain, heart. To flourish we need to carefully dismantle, to re-weave work and care, to radically expand our ideas of kinship and what we care for. This work is the foundation of a generative, social economy in which earlier, industrial models of ownership and value are reimagined.. I will be exploring this new practice of care further this year.

Hilary Cottam is a social activist, the author of Radical Help and an Honorary Professor at UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose @hilarycottam

The Work Project is made possible by a grant from Laudes Foundation. I’m grateful to the Open Society Foundation and to James Anderson for financial support which funded the workshops in 5 UK locations between 2020 and 2021 and I would like to thank the workshop participants and my local hosts in Barking, Barnsley, Barrow, East Ayrshire, Grimsby and Peckham.

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The official blog of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose | Rethinking how public value is created, nurtured and evaluated | Director @MazzucatoM | https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/public-purpose/

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Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel

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