Is it bad to be “Economically Inactive”?

Inspired by exploring neolithic cup and ring markings on rocks around Argyll

Listening to the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, someone was being interviewed about the current problem of high job vacancy rates partly as a result of the growth in “inactive” people following the Covid epidemic. “Inactive” it seems has become a shorthand for “economically inactive” which the government defines as “A person of working age who is out of work. not actively looking for work. not waiting to start a job or not in full-time education

The first thing I’d like to know is are these, so-called, “inactive”, people actually inactive or just carrying out activities not in return for money or the value of money – the definition of economically inactive and the only value that GDP measures.

Even as an advanced Western, market driven, economy, we all recognise the things which make our lives happy, meaningful & worth living, e.g. love, health, discovering, learning, playing, conversation, creating, making things, growing things, walking, singing, reading, art, music, surprises, sensations, imagination, laughter, pets, our natural world, eating together…. And we all recognise that these things can’t easily be assigned a monetary value. But, paradoxically, our market driven, capitalist economy only values and incentivises those activities to which it can assign a ££ market value and count as contributing to GDP. People not engaging in one of those are currently counted as “inactive”- an implied negative.

Albert Wenger, in his book ‘Life after Capital’, argues that we have lost sight of the value of “non-economic” work – work that is about taking care of people and our planet, living happy, meaningful lives, creating a better more enjoyable world through art, music and drama, building vibrant communities, etc. As he says, there are vast swathes of problems that markets cannot and will not solve and opportunities it won’t create. Wenger asks “how do we grow this “non-economic” sphere?” i.e. grow those activities which directly contribute to our own, others or society’s wellbeing and sense of purpose without consideration of personal financial gain? When these things we create or services we provide aren’t produced for the market, their evaluation doesn’t count.

So, maybe many of the people who left their jobs as a result of the pandemic are indeed highly “active” and contributing joyfully and meaningfully to that much needed non-economic sphere. Could Universal Basic Income be the way to grow this? It requires a total rethink of our market and job led economy and, sadly, no politician of any party seems to be even thinking about this.

About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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