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"Green jobs are the magical unicorns of the job market"

A transition to sustainable jobs will not be a silver bullet to solve the global climate crisis, writes Smith Mordak.

In this late-pandemic world in the grips of a climate emergency, green jobs are as hot as a south-facing solar panel on a summer's afternoon. A peruse of LinkedIn will tell you that I'm not the only architect-turned-sustainability-consultant.

So much so that the IMF's World Economic Outlook published this month focuses on policy mechanisms needed to bring about a green transition in the job market and their conclusions hint at something very interesting!

On my fourth birthday (19th February 1986), the Washington Post published an article entitled "Let Them Have Jobs". The article berates president Reagan for blaming the increase in poverty on misguided welfare programmes in his latest radio address; the author pleads for the administration to focus on creating entry-level jobs instead of rolling back the social safety net.

Seven years later an article with (almost) the same name in the UK's Independent newspaper called for public spending to focus on helping the "idle" into jobs instead of "paying people to stay at home".

Jobs are central to maintaining the economic status quo

Recently, that same newspaper reported that the UK's Prime Minister is claiming that there are more people in employment in 2022 than before the pandemic began. The story is about a lie, but what I'm interested in is the lie: that jobs are so politically potent that they're worth lying about.

Jobs are central to maintaining the economic status quo. Whether you're installing heat pumps or pumping petrol, what you're fundamentally doing is earning a wage to spend in the economy so continuing to feed, clothe, and house yourself by way of the economy.

As we saw in 2020, when people can't do their jobs as normal, the economy-as-normal goes out the window, fast. Green jobs are the magical unicorns of the job market because they perpetuate the economic status quo and address the climate emergency both at once. No wonder the IMF dedicated a chapter of its World Economic Outlook report to them.

Advanced economies will require one per cent of workers to change to green jobs

In essence, the report shows that to bring down global emissions by one third in the next ten years (so broadly in line with a global net-zero emissions by the middle of the century) "advanced" economies will require one per cent of workers to change to green jobs and an overall 0.5 per cent increase in employment, and "emerging" economies will require a shift of 2.5 per cent workers into green jobs and 0.5 per cent decrease in employment.

That "advanced" economies get more jobs and "emerging" fewer is explained by "emerging market economies' typically larger shares of output and employment in higher-emissions-intensive production".

I baulk at this too, and wonder: if the model acknowledged that asking both "advanced" and "emerging" economies to decarbonise at the same rate is grossly unfair, would the story be different? But that all being said, what I find interesting is that the decline in employment in "emerging" economies is proposed to be made up for by cash transfers.

Is the IMF becoming a tentative proponent of a Universal Basic Income [UBI]? (I did check, and as of June 2021 "a global UBI is clearly still in the realm of fantasy [and] in the short-to medium-run, the focus should be on creating jobs".)

Are jobs doing a good job at serving humanity's needs?

Let's take a step back for a minute. Are jobs doing a good job at serving humanity's needs? Does drawing buildings ensure the wellbeing of an architect? There are a million frameworks defining human health and prosperity but today I choose Tim Jackson's list: physiological, psychological, social, spiritual, and sexual. Doing a job helps us buy stuff to meet our physiological needs, and to some extent we can buy stuff to help satisfy the other four.

We like to think that the act of doing the job goes some way towards satisfying our psychological and social needs, and sometimes the spiritual and sexual too. But too many jobs fall short of even facilitating the purchase of goods and services to meet basic physiological needs, and downright harm the psychological, social, spiritual and sexual domains of workers' lives.

Arguments for UBI directly address these shortfalls, but isn't this just an unworkable bleeding-heart idea ridiculed by mainstream institutions and responsible administrations?

In 2019 Erik Olin Wright wrote that "[UBI] may become an attractive policy option for capitalist elites" because it would "contribute to social stability… underwrite a different model of income-generating work… [and] stabilize the consumer market".

He expected that these sorts of emancipatory moves would be implemented to support capitalism in the short run, but in the longer term erode the dominance of capital with power shifting bit by bit toward the social and democratic state. If Wright was right, we can expect to see UBI being integrated into more conventional thinking.

Most jobs have some green tasks and some non-green tasks

It's important to say that increasing sparkling clean green jobs in "advanced" economies while reducing dirty economic activity in "emerging" economies without the requisite international reparations is a recipe for entrenching deepening, grinding injustice.

And I'm not suggesting for one minute that we should rest easy because institutions like the IMF are quietly dismantling capitalism from the inside. But if the seeds of a better world are all around us then we should do what we can to spot them and scaffold their emergence to chivvy that better world along.

The IMF's report references detailed work by O*NET on Green Tasks. O*NET specifically references architects as an archetypical "Green Enhanced Skills Occupation" meaning "the essential purposes of the occupation remain the same, but tasks, skills, knowledge, and external elements, such as credentials, have been altered." This classification method hints at something extremely promising: a means of valuing occupations not by their contribution to GDP, but their capacity to support a just transition to a healthy ecosystem.

I also like that the framework recognises that most jobs have some green tasks and some non-green tasks. Certainly, any architect will know that some hours booked on the timesheet go towards designing community gardens and others towards concrete basement swimming pools. What if we just did the green tasks? What if the work of building a healthy ecosystem was the reason for doing a task or not, as opposed to whether or not the worker could afford their rent if they didn't do the task, green or not?

That jobs aren't some sort of silver bullet is acknowledged to some extent – no matter what time you're reading this there's probably a "future of work" webinar going on right now somewhere in the world. I can just imagine the funky booths and screenshots of zoom calls. But I don't want a funky booth, I want a future where work is about meaningful world-building: I want a future of work freed from jobs.

I want architects and designers to be free to spend their time drawing the important stuff that makes the world better. I want everyone – not just the rich – to be able to opt out of doing work they disagree with and opt in to what gets them up in the morning because that decision wouldn't make anyone homeless and hungry.

I want it to be ridiculous for politicians to justify gentrifying neighbourhoods or reopening coal mines on the basis of jobs. I want "Let Them Have Jobs" to sound as preposterous as "Let Them Eat Cake".

Smith Mordak is a multi-award-winning architect, engineer, writer, curator and the director of sustainability and physics at British engineering firm Buro Happold.