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“Green jobs are the magic unicorns of the labor market”

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


In this belated pandemic world grappling with a climate emergency, green jobs are as hot as a south-facing solar panel on a summer afternoon. A read of LinkedIn will tell you that I am not the only architect turned sustainability consultant.

So much so that the IMF’s World Economic Outlook released this month focuses on the policy mechanisms needed to bring about a green transition in the labor market and its findings portend something very interesting!

On my fourth birthday (February 19, 1986), the Washington Post ran an article titled “Let Them Have Jobs.” The article berates President Reagan for blaming rising poverty on misguided welfare programs in his final radio address; the author argues 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 British Independent newspaper called for public spending to focus on helping the “idle” find jobs instead of “paying people to they stay at home.”

Jobs are key to maintaining the economic status quo

Recently, this same newspaper reported that the British Prime Minister claims that there are more people in employment in 2022 than before the start of the pandemic. The story is about a lie, but what interests me is the lie: that Jobs are so politically powerful that they are worth lying to.

Jobs are essential to maintaining the economic status quo. Whether you’re installing heat pumps or pumping gasoline, what you’re basically doing is earning a salary to spend in the economy, so continuing to feed, clothe, and house you through the economy.

As we have seen in 2020, when people cannot do their jobs normally, the normal economy quickly disappears. Green jobs are the magical unicorns of the labor market as they perpetuate the economic status quo and both address the climate emergency. No wonder the IMF devoted a chapter to them in its World Economic Outlook report.

Advanced economies will require one percent of workers to switch to green jobs

Essentially, the report shows that to cut global emissions by a third over the next ten years (if broadly in line with net-zero global emissions by mid-century), “advanced” economies will need one percent of workers to move to green jobs and an overall 0.5 percent increase in employment, and “emerging” economies will need a 2.5 percent shift of workers to green jobs and a 0.5 per cent decrease in employment.

The fact that “advanced” economies get more jobs and “emerging” economies less is explained by “the generally larger share of output and employment of emerging market economies in energy-intensive production. ’emissions’.

I balk at this too and wonder: if the model recognized that asking “advanced” and “emerging” economies to decarbonize at the same pace is grossly unfair, would the story be different? But that being said, what I find interesting is that it is proposed to compensate for the decline in employment in the “emerging” economies by monetary transfers.

Is the IMF becoming a tentative supporter of a universal basic income [UBI]? (I checked, and as of June 2021 “a global UBI is clearly still in the realm of fantasy [and] in the short to medium term, the focus should be on job creation”.)

Do jobs meet the needs of humanity?

Let’s go back for a moment. Do jobs meet the needs of humanity? Does designing buildings ensure the well-being 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 things to meet our physiological needs, and to some extent we can buy things to help meet the other four.

We like to think that getting the job done helps satisfy our psychological and social, and sometimes spiritual and sexual needs as well. But too many jobs don’t even facilitate the purchase of goods and services to meet basic physiological needs and downright harm the psychological, social, spiritual and sexual realms of workers’ lives.

Arguments for UBI directly address these shortcomings, but isn’t it simply an impractical idea and ridiculed by mainstream institutions and responsible administrations?

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

He expected these kinds of emancipatory measures to be implemented to support capitalism in the short term, but in the longer term eroded the dominance of capital, with power gradually shifting towards the social and democratic state. . If Wright was right, we can expect UBI to be integrated into more conventional thinking.

Most jobs have green tasks and non-green tasks

It is important to say that increasing clean, sparkling green jobs in “advanced” economies while reducing dirty economic activity in “emerging” economies without the required international reparations is a recipe for entrenching deepening and l ‘injustice.

And I’m not saying for a minute that we should rest easy because institutions like the IMF are quietly dismantling capitalism from within. But if the seeds of a better world are all around us, then we should do what we can to spot them and support their emergence to support that better world.

The IMF report refers to the detailed work of O*NET on green tasks. O*NET specifically refers to architects as an archetypal “green-enhanced skills profession”, meaning that “the essential aims of the profession remain the same, but the external tasks, skills, knowledge and elements, such as credentials, have been changed. This classification method suggests something extremely promising: a way to value professions not by their contribution to GDP, but by their ability to support a just transition towards a healthy ecosystem.

I also like that the framework recognizes that most jobs have green tasks and non-green tasks. Surely any architect will know that some hours set aside on the timesheet go to designing community gardens and others to 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 pay their rent if they didn’t do the task, green or not?

The fact that jobs aren’t some sort of silver bullet is acknowledged to some degree – whatever time you’re reading this, there’s probably a “future of work” webinar going on 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 building a meaningful world: I want a future of work free from jobs.

I want architects and designers to be free to spend their time designing the important elements that make the world a better place. I want everyone – not just the wealthy – to be able to choose not to do a job they disagree with and to choose what wakes them up in the morning, because that decision would not leave anyone homeless and hungry. .

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

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

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