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The 'Jobs And Growth' Mantra Needs To Be Fired

There's never been a more exciting time to ditch the jobs slogan.

09/05/2016 2:57 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Paying young people $4 per hour for jobs which are disappearing makes sense. Until, all of a sudden, it doesn't anymore. Because the jobs aren't there.

Are you sick of the words "jobs and growth" yet? You sure will be by July 2.

And that's not just because we will hear it thousands of times. It's because, deep down, many of us realise that "jobs and growth" is a mantra for a world on its way out.

21st century realities -- from climate change to automation, from refugees to radicalisation -- need a new approach focussed on freeing ourselves from the "work to consume" shackles.

We now live in a world where automation, environmental constraints and increasing post-materialism mean there will be ever fewer jobs. This is a simple reality our politics has to grapple with, just like the reality of climate change and the coal industry's structural decline. In this context, providing almost free labour is precisely the worst approach. It would depress wages even further, threaten the jobs of those who are already precariously employed, and make even more people precarious.

But the "jobs and growth" mantra makes it inevitable. It's a world view -- parroted by Liberal and Labor, business, unions and social services -- which narrows the value of each unique person to no more than what they can sell their labour for. It enforces the cultural norm that we must all work hard so we can continue to consume so that others can work hard. It's a vicious cycle which makes us unhappy, fearful and disengaged in the face of the environmental and social upheaval it drives.

The jobs mantra leads us to an anaemic view of education, narrowed to instilling labour skills, rather than its intrinsic benefits of helping us understand each other and the world we inhabit. It leads us to starving our cultural institutions and arts of funding, stifling our cultural memory, limiting our reality.

In this reality, paying young people $4 per hour for jobs which are disappearing makes sense. Until, all of a sudden, it doesn't anymore. Because the jobs aren't there.

But what if there were another way? What if we could face up to youth unemployment, precarious employment for older people, education and housing so expensive it's out of reach for many, and so much more, in ways which made life better for all of us and protected the environment?

We can do this if we drop the jobs mantra, and instead prioritise healthy people living in a healthy environment, and an equitable society where those with more help those with less.

The policy prescription that is building a head of steam overseas is some form of guaranteed minimum income -- a living wage to all people, regardless of who they are and what they do. This will mean re-embracing universality instead of controls on welfare and stigmatising those who need support. Already being trialled in parts of Europe and Canada, this will doubtless be part of the long-term picture, but it's not the only part of it.

In a world increasingly polarised between those who are overworked and those who are underemployed, we need to fight for a shorter working week, sharing jobs between more people. The labour movement, which has for decades now focussed primarily on working conditions (a vital task), will have to return to its historic focus, reclaim the spirit which won the eight-hour day, and head towards John Maynard Keynes' vision of a 15-hour week.

Affordable housing is central to this future. Malcolm Turnbull's suggestion that parents should just buy their children homes isn't exactly helpful, but neither is it sufficient to remove negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions. We will need serious investment in low-cost, energy efficient housing, development of housing cooperatives and much more.

Post-materialism is already spreading, communities built around sharing, repair and low consumption thriving. But we will also need to confront and address the ever-expanding reach of advertising in our lives, fighting back against corporate colonisation of ever more of our personal and public space.

Where the jobs mantra makes us more unhappy and less secure, this approach has many co-benefits.

Opposition to refugees and willingness to see desperate people treated appallingly, for example, is often driven by economic insecurity. Similarly, fear campaigns about the costs of climate action are that much easier to beat up when people fear losing their jobs. If we had a guaranteed minimum income and affordable housing, how much freer would the people of the Latrobe and Hunter Valleys feel in choosing their own future beyond coal?

And, of course, it's this approach which will truly unleash an innovation revolution. If we once again make education about growing our minds rather than our GDP, and give people the capacity to choose their own path rather than follow the rat race, we will see creativity boom.

It won't be easy to make any or all of this happen. It will require social and environmental movements to be bolder and stronger than they've been for some time. But in the not unlikely event of another hung parliament from the coming election, they will need to be strong and bold anyway to get the most out of such a critical moment.

It's never been a more exciting time to ditch the jobs mantra and work for a happier, healthier, fairer future.

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