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The nature of work is projected to change dramatically in the coming decades, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) points out in its new statement “Employment and Beyond: Drawing on the Capacities of All to Contribute to Society.”
Artificial intelligence, automation, and digitalization, for example, are expected to displace significant numbers of workers, potentially rendering entire categories of labor obsolete. Yet such tools hold the potential to significantly extend the bounds of human agency.
Conceptions of what it means to foster social well-being must therefore expand and evolve in response.
Formal employment is one means by which people can contribute to the greater good, and traditional wages one way that basic needs can be met. But these are far from the only models by which society can benefit from individuals’ innate talents and abilities. A much fuller conception is needed of the many kinds of contributions that promote a flourishing society, along with practical means to support them.
The aim must be societies that draw effectively on the capacities of all their members.
The focus of this year’s U.N. Commission for Social Development, on creating full and productive employment and decent work for all as a way of overcoming inequalities, can be a powerful impetus toward this end.
Lack of a sound economic base, capable of providing all with the necessities of life, is a grievous barrier to the advancement of any population. At the same time, history demonstrates that employment alone does not invariably foster equality. Many countries have, for example, experienced periods in which high rates of employment were accompanied by widening inequalities. The Commission’s consideration of employment and work, then, must be undertaken in light of the far deeper objective of fostering societies in which all are equally valued and all are afforded the opportunity to contribute their share to collective flourishing. The need, ultimately, is an economic system that refuses to exploit some for the benefit of others — a system in which the dignity of all is recognized and the needs of all are met.
Progress toward more equitable societies will require a broad-based expansion of social and moral capacities, in addition to technical skills.
The real-world results of capacity are determined not only by a person’s potential to achieve goals but also by the types of goals she or he embraces. Skills gained through higher education, for example, could help advance worthy endeavors, but could also be used to profit from systems of corruption and exploitation. To create more equitable societies — and not just more skillful navigators of unequal ones — capacity building must be approached as a normative and moral endeavor as much as an economic and political one.
Individuals and communities will need to deepen capacities to, for example, generate shared vision and commitment to action among diverse actors or to identify root causes of challenges and devise effective responses. They will need to be able to inculcate qualities such as trustworthiness, mutual support, commitment to truth, and a sense of responsibility, that are building blocks of a stable social order.
To speak of the ends toward which capacity will be turned is to enter the realm of values and priorities. What is the purpose of employment? What kind of lives conduce to human fulfillment? What kind of societies do we seek to create together? These are questions that businesses and governing institutions have often avoided, focusing instead on procedural matters of increasing efficiency or expanding choice. Yet ideologies detrimental to the common weal — those that justify selfishness, reward exploitation, excuse indifference, or glorify consumption, thereby fueling inequality — are actively promoted around the world without reservation or apology. If reducing inequality is the aim, society must be infused with attitudes, characteristics, and habits that consciously promote that end.
Movement in this direction will require a thorough reconceptualization of what is understood to be “work,” including ways by which value is attached to its various forms. That some professions are associated with lavish compensation while others, equally vital to social well-being, are afforded only the barest living wage reveals deep-seated distortions in the social contract. Such contradictions must be conclusively resolved if the full potential of any society is to be released and a truly equitable social order to come within reach.