The current welfare-work nexus and associated activation policy are far removed from the ideals of post-growth social policy. As activation policy has been serially reformed, it has tracked a path which has become increasingly productivist and conditional. Economically, it is tied to a growth model which has increased insecure work in precariatised labour markets and, normatively, it is tied to a work ethic which assumes that ‘any job is better than no job’ as a morally fortifying route to self-reliance and so-called ‘well-being’.
On the other hand, post-growth perspectives link with anti-work or post-work imaginaries which respectively imagine a future without work or at least a rejection of the contemporary work ethic and the emphasis on productivism and work in its current form. A chasm thus seems to exist between the ‘here and now’ of the welfare-work nexus in contemporary welfare states and the position of work, however conceived, in a post-growth welfare future.
This paper navigates this tension by re-visiting some ideas of some precursors to post-growth thinking. It explores distinctions between heteronomy and autonomy in terms of how we relate to work in the writings of Ivan Illich and developed more extensively by André Gorz; and ideas about types of work that are ‘good’ from the work of Ernst Schumacher, or are ‘convivial’ or constitute ‘useful unemployment’, drawing again from Illich. Rather than seeing these as exclusively utopian ideals about work in a post-growth context, the paper builds on this exploration by looking at how we might identify pockets of the contemporary welfare-work nexus that have the potential to develop into more fully realised forms of autonomous and convivial work.
To do this, the paper turns to the example of the Irish welfare state and welfare-work nexus to empirically identify forms of activation and related social protection policies that have the potential to embody, but do not expressly recognise, forms of autonomous and ‘convivial’ work. It draws on the example of community employment, a form of direct job creation focused on work of benefit to the community and fostering social inclusion, and social welfare programmes that allow time for care work. The former example is, under productivist and conditional metrics, routinely disparaged and its status (how expansive or limited/conditional the programme is) is typically tied to the state of the labour market and to fiscal imperatives. The latter are also subject to quite restrictive eligibility rules and sometimes raises questions about their ‘welfare dependency’ effects. Yet, both examples represent ‘actually existing’ expressions of the welfare-work nexus that permit more convivial and post-growth types of work activity that enhance temporal autonomy, provide space for socially reproductive work, and test the assumptions of work as paid work.
On the basis of these examples, the paper considers questions of how these expressions of the welfare-work nexus, not only exclusive to the Irish welfare state, can be recognised as such; how their boundaries can be pushed out; and what reforms are desirable to progress their autonomous credentials over their conditional ones.