Archive for the 'Current affairs' Category

What being happier together would actually look like

By Sam Wren-Lewis, author of The Happiness Problem: Rethinking Individual Success and Societal Progress.

You may not know it, but today is the International Day of Happiness. This celebration takes place on the 20th March every year, to coincide with the Spring Equinox, and is a modern day tradition that’s been going since 2013, after its official ratification by the UN in 2012. Each year has a different theme, with this year’s theme being “Happier Together”, encouraging people to focus on “what we have in common, rather than what divides us.”

All of which seems fair enough. After all, everyone wants to be happy, right? Happiness researchers and policymakers like to point out that many of the things that make us happy are universal and don’t cost the world – simple things such as spending time with friends and loved ones, getting outside into nature and being physically active. If only we spent more time doing these kinds of ‘happifying’ activities, and less time pursuing financial success and material goods, the world would be a better, greener, healthier and happier place.

“There are a number of serious factors that prevent people from doing the things that make them happy.”

Of course, advocates of happiness also recognise that things are not this simple. There are a number of serious factors that prevent people from doing the things that make them happy. The pressures and demands of daily life are significant. We are lucky if we can find a spare 10 minutes to do some exercise or simply sit still for a while. Busyness and productivity has become the new norm. In fact, even the suggestion that we should focus more on being happier, when we have so many other things we need to do, can seem patronising or offensive.

These concerns point towards a deeper problem with the rhetoric of happiness. Predominantly, the idea of happiness centres around getting things ‘right’ – having the perfect job, relationship, family life, body and mind. Proponents of happiness may be suggesting that we have some of our priorities wrong in this respect – it matters less how much money we have and more how are relationships are going. But they are still emphasising an ideal that is not be so easy to achieve for everyone. For those who live in genuinely threatening environments, for example, how safe is it to get outside more?

“We may all want to be happy. But we do not all face the same conditions and challenges in life.”

We may all want to be happy. But we do not all face the same conditions and challenges in life. By ignoring this fact, the ‘happiness agenda’ risks either being something trivial or something that is only relevant to the privileged few who can take on its recommendations.

This needn’t be the case, however. Instead of downplaying the different conditions and challenges we face in life, we can employ a notion of happiness that takes suffering much more seriously. The idea of happiness does not have to centre around things being just right.

Thinking about happiness can help us realise that we all face numerous challenges and difficulties, and will continue to do so. This is, ultimately, what we have in common. Things are never just right. No matter how much progress we make, we will still be insecure: vulnerable to disappointment, loss and suffering.

“The first step towards being happier together is paying more attention to the different conditions and challenges faced by people across the world.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for individual achievement and societal progress – these are good things. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to be a bit happier, on today of all days. But if we really want to be “Happier Together”, as this year’s International Day of Happiness theme encourages us to, then we must recognise that our common humanity rests on our common vulnerability. The first step towards being happier together is paying more attention to the different conditions and challenges faced by people across the world.

Interestingly, this, somewhat more depressing, way of looking at things has happiness research on its side. We are beginning to understand the psychological benefits of attitudes such as curiosity and compassion. Even if our lives are not perfect, we can pay more attention towards ourselves and our circumstances, including the things we already have. The same goes for the lives of others. Instead of trying to control people’s behaviour, or find quick fixes for all their problems, we can show them compassion and gain a deeper understanding of what they need. Although this is far from living happily ever after, I believe it is what being happier together would actually look like.

Wren-Lewis_The Happiness Problem.jpgThe Happiness Problem by Sam Wren-Lewis is available on the Policy Press website. Pre-order here for £10.39.

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Why our fixation on the employment rate masks a more harmful truth

Lloyd Anthony pic

Anthony Lloyd

The latest round of employment figures were recently released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2019).  In it, the number of people in work reached a record high (32.54 million) between September – November 2018.  Furthermore, average earnings increased by 3.3%, the number of vacancies increased, and unemployment is at its lowest level since the early 1970s.  All cause for celebration.

Employment Minister Alok Sharma announced “Our pro-business policies have helped boost private sector employment by 3.8 million since 2010, and as the Resolution Foundation’s latest report shows, the ‘jobs-boom has helped some of the most disadvantaged groups find employment’, providing opportunities across society.” (BBC, 2019).  Surely, reasons to be cheerful in these turbulent times? However, we need to ask a number of critical questions about the real state of UK labour markets and the realities (and harms) associated with “employment”.

First, how accurate is the Labour Force Survey?  Our current fixation on low unemployment is a statistical construction easily rejected on closer inspection.  This sample survey of 100,000 responses categorises employment as working over one hour a week, and unemployment as actively seeking work in the past four weeks and available to start in the next two weeks.  From a low bar to one much higher.  Second, what are the conditions within work?  We clearly have no difficulty in creating jobs (or characterising forms of activity as ‘employment’) but it tells us nothing about the lived reality of (in)stability, (in)security, and experiences of work.

“We may have, statistically speaking, more people in jobs than any time in the last four decades, but there are problematic and harmful realities at play”

In my recent book, The Harms of Work: An Ultra-Realist Account of the Service Economy (Bristol University Press), I consider the reality of life in the insecure, flexible and low-paid service economy.  I observe workplaces and interview employees engaged in retail, call centres, leisure, takeaways, bar work, delivery jobs and other forms of customer-facing roles.  I examine the historical shifts in UK labour markets over recent decades to demonstrate a thorough neoliberal restructuring of working life, away from stability and security, towards competition, flexibility and profitability.  I also utilise emerging theories within ultra-realist criminology and social harm to consider the more problematic aspects of this fundamental transformation.  We may have, statistically speaking, more people in jobs than any time in the last four decades, but there are problematic and harmful realities at play in low-paid service work that are overlooked by positive employment figures.

These problems (and harms) include an absence of stability. Temporary, precarious forms of ‘non-standard’ work include zero-hour contracts and the ‘gig economy’.  Power and flexibility rest with employers, not employees, while workers struggle to plan for the week ahead, devoid of solid grounding upon which to build a life.

“Power and flexibility rest with employers, not employees, while workers struggle to plan for the week ahead, devoid of solid grounding upon which to build a life.”

There is also an absence of protection. Illegal practices such as non-payment of the mandated National Minimum Wage and unpaid ‘work trials’ exploit service economy employees.  The absence of protection also extends to mental ill health as overworked, precarious and stressed employees struggle to get by yet often shoulder the responsibility personally; if only they worked harder, if only they were less ambitious or more realistic, things would not be so bad.

Finally, the absence of ethical responsibility for each other creates problems and harms.  Management bullying, workplace cliques and the active exploitation or sabotage of colleagues pervades organisational cultures built on the neoliberal logic of competition, individualism, entitlement and display. Social relations within a competitive culture and competitive work environments increasingly reflect post-social arrangements and lead to harmful consequences.

I frame much of this behaviour and observation around a notion of ‘social harm’. That’s the prevention of recognition, positive rights and human flourishing caused by the intended and unintended consequences of the normal functioning of consumer capitalism. This system, following its own logic, reshapes organisations, cultures and subjectivities and generates a series of problematic and harmful consequences. Looking at the reality of contemporary working life and labour markets is vital; it’s no longer acceptable to continue celebrating the employment figures and the reduction in unemployment when the reality of the workplaces in which the majority of people are engaged produce such deleterious and damaging consequences.

The harms of work [FC]The Harms of Work by Anthony Lloyd is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £64.00 or get the EPUB for £21.59.

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The subversion of democracy

henry-tam

Henry Tam

Bristol University Press talks to Henry Tam, a leading expert on the threats against democracy and what should be done to counter them.  In addition to his academic work as a political theorist, he was in charge of the Labour government’s policies for civil renewal and community empowerment in the 2000s.

Henry’s new book Whose Government Is It? is out today.

BUP: More and more we hear that leaving people to vote with little understanding of the key issues is a recipe for disasters. Brexit, Trump, the resurgence of the far right – how worried should we be?

HT: There is something rotten indeed with the state of our democracy.  Instead of ensuring people’s informed views and concerns are taken into account by those who govern on their behalf, democracy has been subverted by the use of private wealth and large-scale deception to skew political decisions.  If we allow it to continue, we will keep sliding ever closer towards arbitrary rule.

BUP: But isn’t it true that most people are not interested in politics and they don’t want to be involved with the business of government?

HT: People are not interested in petty party-political squabbles, but very few can be indifferent about how their lives are affected by what those with ruling power may or may not do.

For the last 50 years, around a third or more of adults in the UK and the US have not bothered to vote in elections, because they believed it would not make any difference. Among those who vote, an increasing number are unsure if they can trust politicians, while there is an alarming trend over the last decade with people supporting demagogues who want to impose solutions and do away with public accountability.  We have seen those siding with the radical right winning support in elections and referendums across Europe and America.  And they will use and abuse the power they get to advance their own agenda regardless of the harm it brings to others.

BUP: So what can be done?  Are we to stop people voting for certain groups or policies, and wouldn’t that be anti-democratic itself?

HT: Democracy is not the same as letting people do whatever they want. It is a system for enabling people to cooperate in reaching informed decisions about what should be done collectively for their common good. As long as we allow democracy to be stripped of its true meaning, we leave the door wide open for it to be subverted.

There are a number of actions that need to be taken urgently.  As I set out in my book, Time to Save Democracy, we must have a comprehensive set of reforms that will ensure the minimum conditions for the functioning of democracy are adequately met.  These cover the nine strategic areas of:

Shared Mission: To develop common objectives and cultivate solidarity;

Mutual Respect: To tackle the spread of discriminatory behaviour;

Coherent Membership: To clarify terms of citizenship and strengthen people’s sense of belonging;

Collaborative Learning: To raise understanding of what objective enquiry entails;

Critical Re-examination: To counter dogmatism and support open scrutiny of claims;

Responsible Communication: To stem the flow of misinformation and promote fact-based discussions;

Participatory Decision-Making: To enable people to shape the decisions that affect them in an informed manner;

Civic Parity: To curb widening inequalities and redistribute power and resources to create a level playing field for fair cooperation;

Public Accountability: To debunk the deregulation mantra and ensure people with power over others are held to account for their actions.

BUP: In the meantime, what can people do in the absence of your proposed reforms?

HT: As we press for these reforms, we should in parallel adopt arrangements and practices, which are known to facilitate cooperative working between state institutions and citizens, improve people’s quality of life, and raise satisfaction with public actions.

In my latest book, Whose Government is it?, I brought together a group of experts who have extensively examined, developed, and implemented participatory and empowerment processes to explain how to establish them in practice.  Their contributions to the book provide the reasons and guidance for developing the capacity for effective democratic engagement, and setting up the appropriate arrangements to sustain informed cooperation.

BUP: What do you say to people who insist that we cannot afford to spend precious time and resources on consulting the public when it is not only costly, but could land us with damaging decisions?

HT: The truth is that we can’t afford to let the gap between citizens and their government widen any further. Token consultation and corrupted participatory practices are of course worse than useless, but that’s precisely why we must focus on getting the necessary framework and suitable approaches in place.  Democracy has the greatest potential, if we work on it, to advance the common good, safeguard personal well-being, and improve efficiencies.  But neglected, its subversion will plunge countless citizens into insecurity and exploitation.

BUP 4811_WHOSE GOV IS IT 6.18_12.jpgWhose Government Is It? by Henry Tam is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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A long view on Brexit and social policy

experts_hantrais

by Linda Hantrais

If the UK were no longer in a position to promote or hamper EU social policy from the inside, would the EU be more likely to become a fully-fledged social union? And if the UK were no longer subjected to EU law, what might the implications be for UK social policy?

With Brexit shrouded in uncertainty and likely to remain so for an indeterminate length of time What Brexit means for EU and UK social policy, a new Policy Press Short by Linda Hantrais, out this month, adopts a long view to help readers understand how we got to where we are and how social policy might be reconfigured in the wake of the withdrawal negotiations.

By drawing on a range of disciplinary, conceptual and theoretical approaches, the book explores the complex interconnections between social policy formation, implementation and governance in the EU before, during and after the UK’s membership. The chapters examine the issues, debates and policy challenges facing the EU at different stages in its development, as national interests evolved and polarised under pressures from public and parliamentary opinion, fanned by a persistently hostile British press, and shaped by the personalities, beliefs, judgements and prejudices of politicians and their electorates across the EU.

By documenting how UK governments,  officials and social scientists – often simultaneously – promoted and hampered European social and employment policy, the book seeks to explain why Brexit is unlikely to facilitate close social integration within EU27, and why the impact of Brexit on UK social policy is unlikely to result in a reversal or the unravelling of many decades of social and employment legislation implemented by UK governments after being subjected to rigorous parliamentary scrutiny.

“from the outset, UK governments of whatever political persuasion were never wholly committed to European political and social union.”

The book argues that the seeds of euroscepticism were sown in the 1950s in the social domain before the French voted in a referendum on enlargement in 1972 to accept the candidacies of the UK, Denmark, Ireland and Norway for membership of the European Communities (EC). For the six founding member states, with their corporatist employment-related insurance-based regimes, the social dimension was already controversial and divisive. A recurring theme throughout the book is that, from the outset, UK governments of whatever political persuasion were never wholly committed to European political and social union. The UK was only ever half in and never completely relinquished control over its national social protection system. One of the reasons why successive UK governments supported widening (to 28 members states by 2016) rather than deepening of the EU was that they expected the greater diversity of social, economic and political systems to dilute the federalising ambitions of EU institutions, and to make the chances of the EU becoming a social superstate ever more unrealistic.

The UK’s confrontational approach to European social law-making became most salient during the Thatcher years. The price to pay for the completion of the Single European Act 1986, which the UK government had strongly promoted, and which was designed, drafted and implemented by Arthur Cockfield, the UK’s appointee to the Commission, was the extension of qualified majority voting for health and safety measures. While supporting the overall aim of raising regulatory standards in industry to prevent unfair competition, the UK government opposed further encroachment by European institutions in the social domain, and it fell to John Major to prevent the Social Chapter from becoming the social arm of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, considered by many observers as marking an irrevocable step along the path to Brexit.

By using its blocking powers and opt-outs to protect national sovereignty, the UK forfeited the opportunity to be present at the negotiating table, giving the European Commission a chance to test the widely held belief that the UK was a major force preventing social integration. The evidence was far from conclusive. Other national governments, most notably Denmark and Ireland, also had recourse to opt outs, and they voted in referendums against treaty reforms that they saw as a threat to national sovereignty.

The Labour government under Tony Blair opted into the Social Chapter in 1997, allowing it to become legally binding, and the UK came close to  losing the remnants of its sovereignty in the social domain, when (with Ireland  and Sweden) the government opened its borders to uncontrolled intra-European migration from Central and Eastern Europe in 2004. At the same time, heads of state and government agreed on regulation 883/2004 (implemented in 2010) on the regulatory coordination of social security rights, which laid down the principle of the exportability of benefits. This was one of the issues on which David Cameron was to seek, and obtain, concessions in 2016, but without being able to convince the eurosceptic UK electorate that the EU could be reformed from the inside.

“Due to its half-in half-out position, the UK was, however, less directly affected by the 2010 eurozone and 2015 refugee crises.”

By declining to join Economic and Monetary Union (with Denmark) and to sign up to Schengen (with Ireland), the UK had restrained its ability to influence EU social policy. Due to its half-in half-out position, the UK was, however, less directly affected by the 2010 eurozone and 2015 refugee crises. While UK governments were resisting EU-driven social legislation, officials and advisers to the European Commission were closely involved in formulating soft law alternatives in the social domain, most notably through the open method of coordination. They thereby helped to extend the reach of social policy beyond employment rights by assisting with the introduction of targets, benchmarking, the exchange of good practice and policy learning. In addition, Tony Blair’s government is credited with having ‘uploaded’ Labour’s flexibility and welfare-to-work policies to EU level.

So what does all this mean for EU and UK social policy post-Brexit?

Even as the UK was triggering article 50 in 2017, the European Commission was launching the European Pillar of Social Rights. As at other critical moments in the past, in the context of widespread austerity in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, eurozone and refugee crises and the rise of populist parties, EU institutions were seeking to demonstrate that they were concerned to promote social progress for their increasingly eurosceptic and disillusioned peoples. Brexit had provided a wake-up call for EU27. The Pillar’s provisions applied primarily to the eurozone countries. Recognising the importance of national preferences in the social domain, the Pillar left individual member states to advance at their own pace, an approach long advocated by the UK.

Whether the UK leaves or remains, and deal or no deal, from the undertakings provided in the Prime Minister’s speeches, the withdrawal bill, and statements by the CBI, TUC and European Parliament, it seems unlikely that social legislation on workers’ rights will be diluted for so long as the UK is trading with EU27. The settled status afforded to EU migrants and their families residing in the UK could allay fears, at least in the immediate future, regarding freedom of movement.

Given that the UK needed ten years to join a common market of only six member states, and that Greenland needed three years to negotiate its withdrawal, it could well be a decade or more before we can understand the full meaning of Brexit for EU and UK social policy.

 

Linda Hantrais is author of three editions of Social Policy in the European Union (3rd edn Palgrave, 2007); Family Policy Matters: European responses to family change (Policy Press, 2004); and International Comparative Research: theory, policy and practice (Palgrave 2009).

 

What Brexit means for EU and UK social policy [FC]What Brexit Means for EU and UK Social Policy by Linda Hantrais is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £11.99.

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Making ourselves at home in an economy that has enough

authors together

by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams

As we enter 2019, there is one thing that all the commentators and punters seem to agree on: no one can really predict what will happen as the months unfold.

What form will Brexit take? Will Trump’s trade wars lead to hostility between nations or will he pull off a peace deal with North Korea? What will the gadget be that people flock to? Will 2019 be the year that plastic bags increase to 10p each in the UK and plastic straws become a thing of the past?

“So many of the factors that shape one’s life are determined in realms beyond your control.”

Against these multilayered uncertainties is the uncertainty that the majority of people have been dealing with for some time: so many of the factors that shape one’s life are determined in realms beyond your control. In boardrooms that decide your pay and hours. In algorithms that shape political decisions. In weather that is more extreme due to the pollution and emissions of the richest. In navigating social interactions charged with pressure to look a certain way, own certain things, or even to pose and pout in a certain way.

It is no wonder that more and more people are grasping for something different, whether it is apparently simple solutions offered at the ballot box or stepping outside the mainstream into alternative lifestyles.

This individual searching is mirrored in the economy writ large, which also needs to find a different direction. It needs a new project that recognises that the growth-oriented economy of the 20th century has delivered, but that now, many parts of the world are entering a period where growth is bringing a diminishing suite of benefits and often even increasing harm. The institutions and policies that once rendered growth positive (such as progressive taxation, collective provision of health services and education, or labour market arrangements that balanced power more equally between workers and the owners of capital) are being eroded. This is leaving the benefits of growth to be enjoyed by fewer and fewer people. Pursuit of ever more growth is often driving increasing problems that require yet more resources to fix.

“The pursuit of more poses ever greater risk for people and planet – and yet it, the idea of growth, has a stranglehold on our political and economic systems.”

The pursuit of more poses ever greater risk for people and planet – and yet it, the idea of growth, has a stranglehold on our political and economic systems.

It is time for such economies to recognise that they have arrived.

‘Arrival’ is about adequacy, being able to meet basic needs. It is primarily a material notion, a matter of having the resources to deliver a good life.

It confronts the ostensibly forbidden question of whether development has a destination.

Crucially, however, having enough resources collectively does not necessarily mean everyone individually has enough. Arrival does not imply that everything is resolved and everyone has what they need. Rather, it is the idea that a society collectively has the means for this.

“Failure to share the world’s harvest, both within and between countries, is one of the most enduring frustrations and tragedies of our time.”

Failure to share the world’s harvest, both within and between countries, is one of the most enduring frustrations and tragedies of our time. It is the cause of so many of the challenges and uncertainties that people, politicians, businesses and communities are wrestling with as 2019 unfolds.

Perhaps 2019 will be the year in which people recognise that growth has reached a point where a high standard of living could, theoretically, be universal.

Realising that possibility demands a new project – using resources in a smarter, fairer way, rather than wasting or hoarding them; focusing on the quality and distribution of economic activity and material resources. That is the task of ‘making ourselves at home’.

Once the delusion of growth as both an end in itself and the best of all possible means is discarded, discussion can then turn to what sort of economy we can create, to making better use of what has already been accumulated and, perhaps more than anything, ensuring it is fairly distributed.

Many aspects of this ‘grown up’ economy are already in existence – and indeed flourishing. From pro-social businesses to the ‘remakeries’ that are popping up in high streets. From policy makers creating incentives for the circular economy, to the city mayors using participatory budgeting.

Making ourselves at home is an economy in which there is scope for continuous improvement. Science and technology will advance. Human creativity and imagination are boundless. The economy will remain dynamic.

What changes is the ultimate goal. Making ourselves at home is an ethos of qualitative improvement that is a very different system-wide goal to the sometimes meaningless, sometimes harmful, and sometimes unnecessary, pursuit of more.

 

the economics of arrival_fcThe economics of arrival by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £11.99.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

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