For a short time in the spring of 2020, when the COVID pandemic has just started (and when this text has first been published), the widespread fear of climate change among young people was alleviated: the refineries finally came to a standstill, energy consumption decreased, emissions declined. However, the global, fossil-fueled economy quickly picked up again, the conditions "normalised," and we are back on a course of destruction: exceeding the already very limited remaining carbon budgets for a maximum of 1.5°C to 2°C global warming, along with the ongoing destruction of the biosphere, means reaching tipping points and triggering self-reinforcing feedback processes in the Earth's system. An accelerating climate change would then be beyond control, and emission reductions would no longer have any effect. The Earth would gradually become largely uninhabitable for terrestrial life, including humans.

In the Paris Agreement, 195 nations pledged to prevent this. This means that substantial emissions reductions are needed in a very short time—much shorter than the target of 2050, which is so popular because it is still far in the future. For modern industrial societies, which still rely on fossil fuels for over 90% and continue to exploit and destroy the biosphere at a rapid pace, a fundamental social-ecological transformation of their way of life and economy is necessary.

The significance of work

But what are "modern industrial societies" actually? In historical and cultural comparison, they are primarily work-centred and work-dependent. Work (primarily as commodified employment as part of the productivist norms and institutions of modern work-based societies) is one of the central social relations of modern society. Changing this society and its economy, its energy and resource base, and its production and consumption systems fundamentally imply far-reaching consequences for the future of  work in all areas/sectors.

That work actually plays this central role becomes regularly clear with the well-known "jobs argument": Jobs take absolute priority, justifying environmental destruction and the continued existence of destructive industries. There is a broad consensus across all political factions that jobs must be preserved and new ones created, regardless of their social value or adverse impacts. The German government's "Coal Commission" is a prominent example. The promotion of lignite, which only continues to exist (thanks to massive state subsidies) and is responsible for the devastation of entire regions, will continue for almost two more decades,  to avoid jeopardising economic growth and jobs in the affected regions.

This conflict is anything but easy to resolve and is a recurring theme in public debate—but in academic debates, it remains strangely underrepresented, as does the broader topic of work and sustainability. This also applies to economics: Work as such, i.e., not only abstract figures about working hours, labour costs, labour supply and demand, unemployment, or labour productivity, but it's historically specific conception, valuation and organisation, as well as the concrete content and purpose of specific kinds of work, are hardly a topic in economics (except for feminist economics). This article will focus on work within the framework of interdisciplinary sustainability science, which includes economics but is more than that—or rather an economics that can meet the challenges of the 21st century by considering natural laws and pursuing diverse approaches should actually be.

The problem with work: environmental impact...

It may sound trivial, but it is all too often forgotten. Work is  fundamentally based on resource and energy consumption, thus always having direct or indirect environmental impacts. Studies show a clear and immediate connection between environmental impact and working hours, both at the household and macro levels, for industrialised countries as well as for countries in the global South. At least four factors can be identified as causes:

1. The scale  of the economy: The more work that is done, the more resources and energy are consumed, and waste and emissions are generated, which immediately means negative environmental impacts (and of course, differences depending on the type of work and sector). In modern industrial economic systems, the size of the economy and thus the environmental impacts are systematically increased by special mechanisms and drivers.

2. The ecological impact of time use: Time scarcity due to long working hours predominantly leads to environmentally harmful time use, while environmentally friendly activities are typically time-intensive and thus conflict with long working hours. More fundamentally, this concerns the modern, industrial concept of time - the historically novel, abstractly measurable, globally synchronised, economic and constantly accelerated clock time is the basis for modern, abstract, and commodified work and fundamentally conflicts with various natural times and rhythms. Globally operating 24/7 work and production processes and thus resource consumption and pollution are too fast and efficient for natural absorption and regeneration processes.

3. The relationship between income and environmental impacts through consumption (primarily energy consumption and waste generation): More work generates, on average, more income, which leads to higher expenses and consumption. This refers not only to the hyperconsumption of the super-rich but to the general and structural problem that provisioning in modern societies only functions through market-based consumption financed by waged work. A structural alternative to this ‘work-and-spend cycle’ (Juliet Schor) is not provided.

4. "Work-induced" mobility, infrastructure, and consumption: This refers to environmental impacts that work structurally brings with it, regardless of what is specifically worked on. This includes mobility that only exists because work makes it necessary; infrastructure that is only built and maintained so that abstract work has a place to be carried out; and consumption that becomes necessary only through work, including so-called compensatory consumption and luxury consumption (which ultimately, absurdly, results in "work-induced work").

All of these are structural problems of how work is organised in industrial modernity—the often considered solution of "green jobs" does not change these conditions and impacts, and thus, the core of the problem. Moreover, these are "only" ecological problems associated with work; there are also diverse social and economic problems (which cannot be addressed here).

...and structural dependencies

If work is environmentally proven to be problematic, why does the mantra "jobs first" persist so consistently against ecological arguments? What constraints prevent change?

In modern "work societies," there are various structural dependencies on work: On an individual level, employment is essential for securing a livelihood, for social security, integration, and status, and often also for personal identity formation—unemployment means social exclusion, loss of recognition, and existential risks. On this basis, unpaid activities are also excluded from  recognition and support through welfare state  and trade unions .

Secondly, the modern welfare state primarily functions based on work. Tax revenues from work and consumption generated by work contribute significantly to the financing of social security systems. Thus, governments also gain legitimation through the creation of jobs—and thus, it is not important what kind of jobs they are exactly. Moreover, the coercive, disciplining and structuring role of work for modern states should not be underestimated.

Thirdly, there is a macroeconomic dependence on work in modern economies due to the imperative of growth and competition. A diligent working population, long working hours, and increasing productivity are indispensable for increasing output, income, purchasing power, and demand under the mandate of growth and competition.

Finally, there is a particular cultural dependence: the modern work ethic, according to Max Weber, is constitutive of industrial culture and its subjects, noticeable in the deep-seated moral compulsion for constant work and time-saving, in the idealisation of productivity, performance, and entrepreneurship, in the feeling of guilt when time is wasted, or in personal identification with one’s profession. All of this is so self-evident that it seems extremely unrealistic to question it.

André Gorz summed it up aptly: For modern industrial society, work is ‘both its chief means and its ultimate goal’. From this constellation—the environmentally harmful effects of work on the one hand and the systemic compulsions to work on the other—arises the conflict between work and the environment, which will remain a central sustainability problem as long as it is not directly addressed.

What is post-work ? Can it be ecologically helpful?

With critiques of work or "post-work" there is a movement within the progressive debate that critically addresses these issues and is particularly helpful in approaching potential solutions. What does this approach encompass?

The critique of contemporary work draws on an old intellectual tradition of neo-Marxist, anarchist, and feminist thinking and has recently experienced a resurgence in artistic, activist, and social science contexts. At its core, it involves a critique of the centrality of modern work and, by extension, the structures and social relations of modern industrial society. Similar to the logic of growth criticism, it also critiques the cultural or ideological basis of this society: the aforementioned modern work ethic, a morality that views work as an end in itself, a moral duty, of paramount importance for human development, and as intrinsically good, regardless of what is done and at what cost.

The general tendency to label any conceivable activity as work can also be considered an expression of this cultural exaltation of work. Although generally assumed to be natural, this form of social organisation, its institutions, social relations, and phenomena such as the wage relation, the labour market, unemployment, abstract time, or the glorification of "work for the sake of work," is historically and culturally a clear exception to human coexistence.

However,  post-work/critiques of work is not just a critical stance. It also explores how modern industrial society can be transformed for emancipation. The focus is not necessarily on abolishing work altogether but rather on clearly naming and questioning its relentless centrality and finding out how freer, more humane, democratic, and sustainable forms of coexistence and work can be realised, including all the questions and debates that arise from this. Post-work/critiques of work enriches sustainability and climate debates with valuable and urgently needed new perspectives. 

Ecological work time reduction

Firstly, this approach shifts the focus away from popular but ultimately superficial and inadequate solutions, such as changing individual consumption behaviour, and opens conceptual space for a discussion of work as a central but neglected sustainability problem. In ecological terms, this facilitates the urgently needed substantial reduction of work and production—working time reduction is one of the main concerns of post-work.

While usually, very compelling social and economic arguments are made for reducing work, it is becoming increasingly clear that effective climate policy cannot avoid a general and substantial working time reduction. Corresponding calculations show that a level of working hours compatible with remaining carbon budgets would mean a weekly working time of around six hours in Germany’s case—not per day, but per week!

Current debates about the introduction of a 4-day week or "just transitions" and "climate jobs" are therefore welcome but mostly do not adequately address the extent and urgency of ecological challenges. Nevertheless, it is essential to emphasise that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, working time reduction was always one of the main demands of trade unions and part of most political programs, and the idea that increasing productivity means shorter working hours was generally accepted. This could be easily reinvigorated and built on –  and indeed, discussions about and practical implementations of work time reduction have recently gained much visibility and prominence. This trend shows that there is a lot of political potential that could not only be strengthened but also extended to more fundamental questions about the ecological limits of work.

What work does society need—and what does it not need?

There is much to be said for not reducing work across the board but rather according to the environmental impacts of industries and sectors, as well as the possibility of reorganising and redistributing work based on renewable energies and remaining carbon budgets. But which work in which sectors should be specifically reduced, and who decides?

In corresponding debates, it is usually said that harmful and pointless work should be reduced—but what work is pointless and harmful, which is redundant, which is questionable, and which is indispensable? Serious discussions about this are prevented by the sanctity  of work or "full employment." What is needed here is a broad debate about the societal necessity of work, about its meaning and purpose and potentially negative impacts; institutionalised and thus permanently established in forums of economic-democratic decision-making – institutions that need to be created.

Some of this debate has already begun, as evidenced by discussions about "bullshit jobs" (earlier discussions also included "socially useful production") or the heightened public awareness of the value of ‘essential labour’ (and consequently, the existence of non-essential labour) during the COVID pandemic. Other examples include the recently adopted ‘EU taxonomy’ which tries to establish a classification of  ‘environmentally sustainable economic activities’ (but fails to classify unsustainable ones), or the situation of energy scarcity in the wake of the Russia’s war against Ukraine, when government-level plans have been introduced regulating which sectors should be prioritised in the case of severe gas shortages. Current debates about shortages of skilled labour also point in this direction: proposed solutions usually fall back into the old pattern of growth-orientation (prolonging working days and lives, integrating/forcing more women, immigrants, and otherwise unemployed persons into labour markets and full-time jobs) – instead of asking how a permanently reduced amount of labour could be redistributed into sustainable and essential sectors. This includes asking whether labour is currently ‘wasted’ in pointless and destructive jobs (for example, the people who currently work in the 138 projects of expanding motorways in Germany cannot at the same time work in sustainable and meaningful sectors). Not to mention that this debate is still very global North centred.

These examples show that the question of the social and ecological value of work is likely here to stay, but needs to be more explicitly articulated. Post-work is helpful here by posing the right questions and demanding the politicisation of work because the societal organisation, valuation, distribution and conception of work are social conventions and thus political, and consequently, they must fundamentally be subject to debate.

Labour market vs. economic democracy

A post-work perspective also allows for a reconsideration of the organisation of work. In progressive eco-socialde bates, there are plausible arguments for the introduction of institutions for democratic control over economic power and important economic decisions concerning the allocation of labour, resources and energy, i.e., economic democracy (which would be urgently needed, for example, to sensibly and fairly distribute a very limited remaining carbon budget).

In this context, a particularly hindering institution, relatively rarely questioned as such (even in critical circles), is the labour market, a mechanism that allocates work in a competitive mode as an artificially scarce, "fictional" commodity based on the availability of money and/or the expectation of profit on the part of employers—and not based on criteria of sustainability and societal needs. As long as unsustainable or socially meaningless jobs are profitable and/or (well-)paid, they will continue to exist according to market logic, just as "green jobs" will have to meet these criteria in order to be created. Post-work questions this issue and connects to debates about other, de-commodified, democratic, and sustainable forms of organising socially necessary activities, production, and provisioning. Very promising here are the currently proliferating debates about the commons and democratic economic planning.

The human capital strikes back

Finally, post-work is helpful as an approach for ecological purposes because it problematizes the cultural exaltation and glorification of "hard work" and productivism, and associated with it, the moral notion that laziness and inactivity are intrinsically bad.

Post-work offers a different mindset according to which being lazy and unproductive can be very valuable. Laziness or the old idea of leisure is ecologically advantageous because, provenly, nothing is as climate-neutral and environmentally friendly as being absolutely unproductive. Time-use studies show that leisure, relaxation, and social pastimes have very low ecological impacts, and sleep practically has none—so idleness is the environmentally most benign form of existence.

The post-work debate also contributes to understanding the changes in attitudes toward time, efficiency, and laziness that have brought about modern work culture. It can draw on a very old tradition where leisure—and not the hamster wheel, time pressure, burnout, and endless to-do lists—was always the highest social ideal and considered essential for the realisation of freedom and a good life; even Aristotle called leisure the sister of freedom.

For effective climate policy, the (re)discovery of ecological idleness, career refusal, sleeping through competition (in general, sleeping much more), and general strikes as political means would be very helpful—partly to throw a wrench into the works of an increasingly destructive system, and partly as an immediate climate protection measure: just letting things be, conscious inactivity, and collective cessation would be ecologically very advantageous and, as Greta Thunberg  stated, the only effective climate protection method available at scale today.

However, Thunberg added that the idea of a measure for which nothing needs to be built, invested, or bought is not only unrealistic for many but also creates a kind of mental short circuit. The modern human is too convinced that a meaningful measure must be accompanied by productivity and activity (Ivan Illich called this solving by escalation). In any case, it should give us pause that the "pre-industrial" era is a crucial reference point for climate science. And luckily, there are many promising signs of an ongoing, more fundamental cultural change in attitudes toward work and time, something which needs to be more boldly articulated and promoted, and its ecological value more clearly explained.


So why did the refineries shut down in the spring of 2020, did energy consumption decrease, and did emissions drop? An essential part of the answer: because considerably less work was done. However, not in all areas: temporarily, entire economies were reorganised regarding which industries and fields of work are immediately socially necessary compared to those that are dispensable and therefore had to reduce or suspend their operations for some time.

Workers went on strike for the closure of factories because they regarded their jobs as both unnecessary and dangerous, and companies voluntarily switched production to produce socially necessary goods. People working in "essential" professions suddenly received applause and new appreciation. This led not only to debates about the usual (including financial) undervaluation of these jobs but also to a new, broad awareness of the very different societal value of different kinds of work.

Thus, the pandemic – when the widespread recognition of an existential crisis suddenly opened up avenues that would have been inconceivable before – brought very remarkable social and ecological changes; some of which were only temporary, others more lasting. The more temporary ones now already seem distant and forgotten, yet should collectively be kept in mind: We should more often remind ourselves what this crisis taught us about the varying social value of work and that distinguishing economic activity according to its societal importance is not unrealistic, that people are ready to reconsider the place of work in their lives, that collectively working less is one of the few measures which reliably reduces environmental impact, or that the prevailing system of allocating and valuing work according to market logic is unable to cope with existential crises, of which more are certain to come.

To cope with the climate crisis, in any case,  we should further think and act in this direction—or further stop our collective hyperactivity. Whether it will succeed is open. In the struggle for a sustainable and livable future, however, the critique of work is an essential perspective.


Disclaimer: This article is a translated version of the intervention that was originally published in German language as part of the Economists For Future Debate Series and is based on the author’s article in the journal Environmental Sociology. Hence, some of the linked references are in German. This article is also has several references to Germany and broadly only encapsulates the debates in the Global North.

About the author:

Maja Hoffmann is a doctoral candidate at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Her research focuses on work and critiques of work in the context of social ecological transformation and postcolonial theory.

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