The Quest for Better Work and Livelihoods Post Covid-19 and Beyond
2 June 2020
How should we reform our economies and bring people back to better work, aligned with major social, political and economic challenges, notably climate change?
Professor Henrietta L. Moore
On Thursday 28 May, I co-hosted the 6th Exit Strategy Workshop on “Post Covid Jobs and the Quest for Better Work” with Rebuilding Macroeconomics Director Professor Angus Armstrong. Panellists included Professor Stephen Machin, Director of Centre of Economic Performance at LSE, Dr Ruth Yeoman, Fellow of Kellogg College at Oxford University, Professor Anand Menon, Director of The UK in a Changing Europe institute at KCL, Jonathan PortesProfessor of Economics and Public Policy, KCL, Dr Geoff Tily, Senior Economist at TUC, and Laura Gardiner, Research Director at the Resolution Foundation.
We invited the panellists and participants to address aforementioned question, focusing on the potentials for reforming our economic systems moving forward from the Covid-19 crisis, creating and sustaining better jobs and secure livelihoods.
By now it is clear that the ongoing public health and socio-economic crises brought forth by the Covid-19 pandemic have led to an unprecedented loss of work. By mid-May, eight weeks after the lockdown in the UK began, eight million UK workers were having 80 per cent of their regular wages paid by the state furlough scheme, a total value of £11.1billion. However, in April nearly 2.1 million people in the UK claimed unemployment benefits, indicating a likely hike in the unemployment rate from 3.9 to 9 per cent.
So far government efforts, here in the UK and abroad, have focused on making sure the economy can return to the way it was prior to the crisis. In addition to the furlough scheme, the UK government has launched consecutive fiscal rescue packages to protect industry and businesses most affected, while many politicians have campaigned for a temporary Universal Basic Income.
In our panel, there was agreement that while these measures and initiatives are all essential to meet the immediate needs – food, shelter, and human dignity - of most vulnerable communities, they are not the way forward post-pandemic.
As Prof Geoff Tily explained, referring to a recent Trade Union’s Congress A Better Recovery report, Covid-19 alone did not cause this economic crisis: it is the result of ten years of austerity politics and social and economic damage. Current fiscal policies show big numbers but are centralised, debt dependent and short-sighted.
The situation was not ‘alright’ before Covid-19 hit. In the last 3 months of 2019, the UK economy showed no or stagnant growth, business and investment were in decline, the labour share of income had been falling since 2009, and those most needed in society (teachers, health and social care workers, frontliners…), were poorly paid and struggling.
Our current economic system is socially, financially and environmentally unsustainable and current measures leave existential challenges present before the pandemic unaddressed: the social care crisis, rising economic insecurity and poverty, lack of labour market realignment to automation and technological change, the rise of ‘atypical’ and precarious jobs and in-work poverty, the green economy and climate emergency.
So how do we reimage the social contract and realign the labour market?
Reimagining the Social Contract and Labour Market in Recovery
One way to do this, Dr Ruth Yeoman suggests, is to develop new public policy ecosystems based on ‘contributive justice’ and ‘economics of meaning’. This is something that could be achieved through better entitlements for capability development and organisational belonging, encouraging diversity of ownership forms and associative economic democracy practices.
The challenge will also be for policymakers and economists to ‘pivot’ to more active measures that help workers find new and better work, train, and build human capital says Prof Jonathan Portes. Indeed, part of the problem is a preference for politically palatable and administratively ‘simple’ one-size-fits-all measures. This has led UK government and the treasury to prioritise ‘exit strategies’ over ‘active labour market policies’ which are unstainable in the long term. In contrast, as Portes argued, we need an extended welfare system that not only provides but that also enhances participation.
Laura Gardiner added that as the current furlough scheme is phased out, the benefit system will become essential in the medium and long-term as more people move from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to Universal Credit. The focus will thus need to be on regional strategies for retraining, job guarantees and better work conditions.
Realigning the labour market, for Prof Stephen Machin, requires a focus not only on those currently in the labour market but also those entering post-pandemic. For Machin and others, the issue was not so much whether Covid-19 could lead to a ‘work-from-home’ revolution – something all panellist agreed was unlikely – but how to translate flexibilities and opportunities from one sector to another. While creating guarantees based on better work conditions and cross-sectoral mobilisation is crucial, this must be accompanied with better information, education and training programmes, and employer options.
Prof Anand Menon reminds us that, like in the 2008 Financial Crisis, economists will need to spell-out clear, compelling proposals and ‘narratives’ for policy-makers. This task is all the more onerous and essential given that any post Covid-19 strategy conversation will need to take place within the context of the UK’s changing relationship with its biggest trade partner, the EU. Laura Gardiner said that successful and sustainable labour market realignment strategy will require central government to work with local authorities and communities.
Secure Livelihoods and Localism
Many of these proposals echo much of our work at the IGP. Moving forward, we will need more innovative and transformative strategies that are locally-situated and coordinated, that include local government and community stakeholders, and take into account the complexities of each place. Through our citizen science and collaborative research, we have identified secure livelihoods as essential for improving people’s quality of life and capacities and capabilities to respond to change, and that local communities are well placed to address the needs and conditions to achieve this.
Universal Basic Services
We also understand that secure livelihoods represent more than having a job or income; they combine micro and macro level assets and capacities that people draw on to get by and to live a good life (including social networks, access to green spaces, solidarity, education, access to transport and internet, accountable and inclusive local and regional institutions to mention a few).
Delivering on secure livelihoods that support and improve people’s quality of life post-Covid-19 will necessitate a serious reformulation of the tax and benefits systemconsistent industrial strategy, policy on education, local government spending and much more besides over a generation.
One strand of our work focuses on the notion of an extended system of universal public services (UBS) as a pathway to deliver on secure livelihoods and prosperity. Funded by a progressive tax regime and able to reach and improve people’s day-to-day lives – through the provision of free social housing, free public transport, free social care, free internet – a UBS would have the ability to reduce people’s cost of living and improve their wellbeing in much more effective, inclusive and sustainable ways. Such a system would be transformative, economically feasible and sustainable, and would reinforce the capacities and capabilities of individuals and communities to respond and adapt to sudden shocks such as the one we are currently experiencing.
There is clearly a need to rethink work and our relationship to work and reinstate the real purpose of the economy: to provide quality of life and opportunities to flourish for all. Instead of short-term cash rescue packages and furlough schemes, we need a strategy based on long-term investments in infrastructures that support people’s capabilities, capacities, and assets to have not just better jobs but secure and prosperous livelihoods.
This article is part of IGP’s Post-Covid Live series where Professor Henrietta L. Moore, Founder and Director of the IGP, addresses the nature of society, the kind of government and the form of economy we will need and want after the crisis.
Image created by Catherine Cordasco. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives - help stop the spread of COVID-19. Unsplash