For almost three years I have been working once a week as a volunteer in the homeless shelter in Utrecht. Morning and evening services are performed by two permanent employees of the foundation and two to three volunteers. There is also a kitchen where a three-course meal is prepared by unpaid chefs and kitchen helpers for about 60 homeless people every day of the year.
During my service, I do simmilar tasks as a permanent employee, with the difference that I don’t get a cent for it. But serving these humble, grateful, simple, and kind, loving people is so much fun that I have never really thought about it. For some years now I have not worked at all for money. But of course I work. I am an educator, tutor, cook, cleaner, mechanic, supplier, entertainer.
I often think about the system change that we urgently need if we want to leave our children and grandchildren a world worth living in . A world that is not dominated by “buying and throwing away” but by “spending time together”. There are many demonstrations worldwide on the streets for this idea , but I have the impression that nobody knows exactly how to do this system change. I also go out on the streets regularly to demonstrate and I know the demonstrators and I know that a violent revolution is out of the question. So what to do?
We are currently dominated by the global market, which is geared exclusively to maximizing profits. How can you tackle this market? Paid work is an important pillar of this market, since paid work creates a dependency relationship with the market or with the company, which is part of the market. We know that the economy has to shrink and that this has little impact on our standard of living – if we don’t just see living standards in buying and throwing away. Our technology is so advanced that if we worked two or three days a week, it would be enough. But many people are afraid of the economy shrinking because they are afraid of losing their jobs. This is mainly for financial reasons. But an important reason is also the loss of personality and self-affirmation that you get from practicing your profession. This reason would not apply, if unpaid and voluntary work is recognized just like paid work. Then many people would be willing to give up their paid work to take better care of their families and take on volunteer work in civil society that they enjoy.
I think that the struggle for better recognition unpaid work must also be an important task for feminist action groups.
At the same time, civil society must be defined. Civil society should not be understood to only involve people in political decisions. Civil society is everything one likes to do for others without financial interest. Support in schools, hospitals, old people’s homes, in agriculture, with repairs, transport etc. There is enormous potential here. Structuring the possibilities of civil society will also benefit the employment offices, which will have to face an increasing number of unemployed in the future. They will be happy to use the opportunities of civil society to offer people an alternative. Similarly, those responsible in the state have to think about how the financial indemnity of unpaid workers can be done. But since you can get a lot of services from civil society for free, you will be able to make do with less money in the future and the money will also get a different value. For the first time in history, we are able to provide all people with sufficient supplies if everything is distributed fairly. So it is no longer necessary to put money back as a reserve.
Social economists have demonstrated that unpaid work provides the same and better results as paid work. I know from my own experience that volunteering can replace apparent wealth with a large apartment, an expensive car, and rewards with shopping because volunteering creates more satisfaction because you do something for others without receiving material wages. This will also appeal to those who still spend their free time visiting shopping centers.
If civil society grows visibly for everyone and takes concrete forms, the term “economic growth” will be replaced in the arguments of politicians by the term “civil society growth”.