In Hawaii and elsewhere, people are planning to use the current crisis to make changes in the way their communities function after the crisis has passed. Some are working toward a fairer, more equitable, more sustainable Hawaii. Other, perhaps, want to make changes that will give them even more wealth and power than they have now. Some simply want to get people working at the same old jobs they did before. Several point out that many people derive the very purpose of their life from their job. When they are unemployed they feel lost, unneeded, unmoored.
That is true. However, for a long time, technology has been replacing human mental and manual labor faster than meaningful, well-paying jobs requiring humans can be created. Many in Hawaii have to work two, three, four jobs and still can barely survive. Official unemployment might seem low, but the work available often does not give people the meaning to their life they deserve.
During the pandemic, there has been an increase in volunteering. This is just one example of the fact that many people, when they can live well enough without working, willingly put their lives to the service of others and to the environment upon which we all depend. People don’t want jobs. They want identity, purpose, security, health. Many jobs don’t provide that.
Once upon a time, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat.” Human labor was needed to produce goods and services. Now, that is not the case for many things. The historical connection between one’s labor and one’s access to goods and services produced without much human labor has been severed. And yet, we still expect people to “work” in order to eat.
To the contrary, since work has little to do with production, access should be as free and equitable as possible. This requires substantial changes in governance and education, especially, but it is based on how most people actually behave when they don’t have to “work” to survive. We need, carefully and honestly, to envision and design what a world largely without work might be like. Great care also must be taken in the design and execution of the transition period between the present (or immediate past) when human labor may still be needed, and a future striving toward full unemployment.
In our rush to return to normal, we should not romanticize what that normal was actually like. Surely we can devise better systems. Moreover, is leisure-travel-intensive, sun-soaking tourism based on manual labor — while climates change and sea levels rise — a viable economy for Hawaii anyway? Tourism is, was, a huge global enterprise that was easy for us to be a part of successfully. But mass tourism is also extremely fragile and destructive of cultures and environments.
It is time we all take the current hiatus as an opportunity for re-imagining our common futures, and moving together toward those that delight and elevate us all fairly and equitably.
Jim Dator is professor emeritus and former director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii-Manoa.