Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Prioritising the love economy

In today's environment, education is slanted towards getting a career, mothers are encouraged to go back to work as quickly as possible, we want to move people from the disability pension onto Newstart and now people are encouraged to work for as long as possible before retiring. 

The message is loud and clear. You need to work for a wage to contribute to society (although I do understand there are other reasons for the later retirement age). 

And that may make some kind of sense, if economic growth is to be the number one priority for Australia. And often it seems as though the politicians at least think it should be. But is economic growth really the most important thing in our lives. After all, what point does it serve? More money for the sake of more money doesn't seem to make a lot of sense - unless that money is actually getting us things that we value and are important. 

And surprising as it may seem, a lot of the things we value and that we think are important are not tied to money at all. 

In From Naked Earth to Superspecies, David Suzuki talks about what Hazel Henderson calls the love economy, which 'includes all the productive work that humans do that does not involve an exchange of money - things like raising families, doing community work, taking care of the elderly, being active in a club or charity.' Suzuki says it 'may be impossible to put a price tag on these activities, but they are the very glue that holds society together.'

If our focus is on economic growth for its own sake, then these kind of things get de-valued. No monetary transactions take place. Their contribution to the economy is indirect. 

However, this is why the focus on economic growth is so misplaced. Because while these things do not contribute to economic growth, they do contribute a lot of value to society. And when we focus on economic growth we move people away from this very important, very valuable (but unpaid) work that they are doing. 

When we create policies to encourage mothers (or fathers as the case may be) into the workforce sooner and our ageing population to stay in the workforce longer, we are making the assumption that being in the paid workforce is more important than anything that might otherwise be doing. 

But that's simply not the case. 

Taking care of children may not pay much, but it's an extremely important job and adds tremendous value to society. When kids are loved and educated, they flourish. When they feel valued, they grow up to be adults who value others. Yes, there are exceptions. And no, I would never suggest that this means every parents should stay home with their children. Kids can flourish in daycare settings as well. But to say to a person who wants to stay home with their kid, what you're doing is less important than working is ludicrous.  

I personally returned to work when my child was six months' old. I had an office job, where I would basically sit there doing nothing all day. I would think of how much more valuably my time could be spent if I was at home with my child. So I quit. I'm lucky that I found a job where I could work from home. It didn't pay much, but I was one of the lucky ones. I could do that. Nowadays, with the changes to parenting payment making single parents go back to work when their youngest child turn eight, many parents will never have the opportunity to spend as much time with their kids as I did. And while we never had much money, what we did have (time together) I believe was way more important. 

Now from an economics perspective, I suppose my time at work (sitting at a desk twiddling my thumbs) was more important than the work I did when I left (raising children showing them love, educating them about the world around him). Because the work I did twiddling my thumbs paid a lot more than the work I did when I left - even after I found my work-from-home job. 

But what will matter most in 10 years time? Well as it is now 10 years later, I can answer that. The time I spent at work matters not one jot! Any money I made then doesn't matter much now. But I am so happy for that time I spent with my kids. And I believe it has helped us have the close, loving relationship we share today. And, from a societal perspective, I have children who care a lot about the world around them. My eldest son can't wait until he's 18 so he can vote. He cares passionately about foreign aid and the rights of others. My youngest son is the most friendliest, caring child I've ever met. And I do believe it's because I was there, talking to them, getting them to think, showing them that they are loved. 

Again, I have nothing against those who want to work. For many people, it's a better option. Just don't assume it's the best option. Because it's not. 

Parents (as well as retirees) also do a lot of volunteer work - whether it's at the school, the church, the sporting fields, the community club. And that also is of huge benefit to society. For a start, volunteers are often the people assisting, caring and showing compassion when money won't buy it! And isn't it nice to know there are some things you don't need money to buy. And that kind of help doesn't just contribute to society, it can completely turn a life around. 

Now the more we push people to stay in the workforce longer, the less time they will have to do volunteer work. And what happens then? They became paid services that not everyone can afford. And if you take something like help with homework, some people will be able to pay for tutors, while those relying on volunteers will no longer have that help there. And so the gap between rich and poor grows bigger. 

And our society becomes less and less able to care for people and less and less compassionate. 

But should we care about those who need services but can't pay for them? After all, what do they contribute to the economy? 

Maybe not as much as others - but that's just a reason why economic growth shouldn't be our primary focus. Because when society shows compassion and assistance to its most vulnerable, it's not just the vulnerable that benefit, it's all of us.  

This may surprise some people, but I do believe the economy is important - to a certain extent. But I also believe it's far less important than the love economy. And when the love economy suffers because we're prioritising the money economy over it, then something is wrong.  

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