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Sustainability - a strategy for the future

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Can society be sustainable if working life isn't? By valuing working life in terms of sustainability, we add a new perspective of forward thinking and inclusiveness which concerns people. Sustainability puts work in a context which challenges traditional solutions and players, and it mobilises fresh thinking. This is one conclusion from a report written by professor Bjørg Aase Sørensen and Christin Thea Wathne at the Norwegian Work Research Institute.

“Sustainability concerns everybody. It's about the yet unfulfilled obligations we have to our unknown children and grandchildren. It is also about a chance to gather around a concept which is both inclusive and demanding”, says Bjørg Aase Sørensen.

Future perspective

Sustainability is about making choices which protect both human and material resources. It's about understanding the various phases each individual worker goes through during his or her working life, and that the workers of today and the future are less homogenous than the middle-aged, white men who have become the norm in working life. Focusing on sustainability and working life means creating a new strategy with a longer-term aim. It doesn`t only exist to get rid of urgent problems, or to fix them. It's the difference between creating specialised working conditions for specific groups of workers, for instance the older ones, and to develop a working environment where you can grow older without the need for special conditions.

But a future commitment demands co-operation between many different partners - individuals, businesses, organisations, industries, authorities and researchers.

“In some ways the actors are the same as today, but I imagine we'll want to reconsider which systems are the most relevant. Internet helps us exchange information fast, and technology can encourage co-operation between unorthodox parties. For instance, developed countries can be influenced by developing countries - and the other way around. By thinking sustainability, we also allow ourselves to be inspired by new ideas", says Bjørg Aase Sørensen.

She gives an example; in Lofoten they`ve got a women’s bank, an idea from developing countries where micro credit systems are common. If sustainability gets a foot-hold, similar ideas can become more and more relevant. 

Is the notion relevant? 

Bjørg Aase Sørensen and Christin Thea Wathne have put down a lot of work to determine what sustainability means to different groups of people, and where the notion makes itself present on the Nordic countries' agenda, especially when it comes to working life. They have interviewed researchers and authorities in the different Nordic countries, gathered advertising people, prison inmates, substance abusers, elderly people and athletes. All have been asked what sustainability means to them. They have visited businesses and studied various national projects which are deemed to be sustainable, no matter whether or not the notion is on the agenda. They have also looked at how sustainability in the work place is controlled and supported.

The researchers found that there are many interpretations and examples of what sustainability really is, what it can be and how it is linked to the development of working life. Finland, for instance, has developed a long-term strategy for the development of working environments. One example is the Well-being at Work Programme. Here, different parties co-operate systematically and long-term to create working environments where people want to and are motivated to work to a higher age than what is common today Bjørg Aase Sørensen thinks the Finnish scheme is an impressive sustainability project, even if that is not what it is called. Finns she has spoken to claim sustainability does not play a part here, because the working environment concept contains the same values.

The Danes approach sustainability in many different ways. Denmark has, for instance, partnerships between researchers and trade union movements. Their vision is not so much to use the idea of sustainability as a way to solve a problem, rather than building on utopian ideas and developing the notion of sustainability through research and the willingness to try new things.

Little by little, they give meaning to the notion sustainability, by being open to experimentation, she says.

“In Denmark the term sustainability means a more ecological way of thinking. They're always open to new alternatives", says Bjørg Aase Sørensen.

A local labour agenda

The biggest difference between the Nordic countries can be found in the relationship between the parties in the labour market, the authorities and researchers. In Denmark many work environment issues are regulated through deals and agreements on branch or local level, while the other Nordic countries to a larger extent use legislation. Bjørg Aase Sørensen concludes, however, that a sustainable working life is in effect developed locally. The work place is where you must make laws and regulations work, and that is where people have to feel included in order to develop the local agenda for that work place.

Sustainability can be an ambiguous notion. One business can claim to contribute to global sustainability by moving its production abroad. A move creates jobs in the new country and the business keeps its power in the market place. Seven businesses in the Grenland area of Norway have made a different choice. They decided it most valuable to keep production at home. Suddenly the most important thing was not that `our business' should be all right, but that all businesses in the community should be all right. To make sure this happened, all of the employees in these seven businesses now belong to a common pool. It creates flexibility and increased security.

Bjørg Aase Sørensen stresses that to be open to interpretations of the notion of sustainability is in itself a strength.

“Thinking of working life in a sustainable perspective creates participation, and makes people feel both vulnerable and powerful. We still haven't got a final definition of sustainability and therefore no limits to ideas or possibilities.

That means we realise that we are part of something bigger, and that there are limits to how much we can exploit both the nature which surrounds us and people in working life", says Bjørg Aase Sørensen.

Work creates involvement

For the Nordic countries it is not new thinking to talk about sustainability. The term itself was

launched more than 20 years ago in the report from the Brundtland commission. Sustainability has also long been on the agenda of the Council of Ministers, not least

when it comes to environment and companies. Now, in the latest prime minister's declaration, the notion has been widened. lt says there that “present and future generations shall be guaranteed a safe and healthy life", and that "a sustainable society must be based on democracy openness and involvement in local, regional and democratic co-operation.”

Working life is a deciding factor in order to create this involvement. If people are left outside of working life, or if the labour force is classified into A- and B-teams, social differences will increase.

Fewer will have the chance to contribute to the welfare state.

"Historical and international experience shows economic growth fuelled by increased labour intensity more working hours and an increased use of raw materials is never sustainable in the long term", according to the Swedish National Institute for Working Life's yearbook 2006, 'Roads to a more open labour market'.

lt establishes amongst other things that increased growth is not enough. Work is about more than money and growth. It is about financing public welfare, but it is also to a large extent about meaning and identity. "People crave involvement. We want to be needed. Social medical research shows that unemployment and being left outside leads to ill health, physically and psychologically. Being left outside creates individual and collective frustration, which can lead to crime, xenophobia and anti-democratic movements”, writes Jonas Olofsson, senior lecturer in economic history, and author of the yearbook.

Working joy in headwind 

It is easy to believe that the Nordic working life is already sustainable. Even the expression 'working joy' is Nordic. The players in the working life have been strong and there has been a solid  dialogue and willingness for mutual understanding between the parties in the labour market.

Work has been highly valued, and the Nordic countries have topped statistics for high participation of both men and women. Work has also been associated with social

togetherness, development and identity. Labour has been governed by laws, with strong ambitions to create security and safety, and an active labour market policy has been there to help out the unemployed.

Still, the Nordic working life is struggling with big problems, possibly with the exception of Iceland. Focus now is on those who for various reasons aren't included in working life, and not least on how people can have the strength to stay in work until they're older. Many people with foreign backgrounds also struggle to gain a permanent foothold in the Nordic labour markets, and a large group of young people also fail to get jobs. Despite having some of the world's top labour participation ratings, the reality in the Nordic countries is not as bright as the figures indicate.

According to the book 'Roads to a more open labour market', 1.2 million Swedes of employable age are not working, and live off various social benefits.

A mobilising power 

“We see clear signs that we're living in a time when the working life is better than ever, but at the same time more people remain outside any active roles in the working life. In countries like ours, where we are so enthusiastic about the value of labour, we're particularly vulnerable. Working life influences society, and if you're not part of it, you're also isolated from important aspects of democracy", says Bjørg Aase Sørensen.

There is no magic formula needed to explain what constitutes a working life you can live with our whole life. The English writer John Ruskin wrote as early as 1850:

“For people to be happy in their labour, three things are necessary: They must like the work they do, they must not do too much of it, and they must feel that they are succeeding in what they do.”

The Israeli sociologist Anton Antonovsky coined the KASAM-concept, mapping what factors contribute to good health in people's working life. He concluded that a healthy working life was best achieved by creating a feeling of coherence, derived from understanding, the ability to master your work and to find meaning in what you do. Several research papers also map what is needed to create good health and wellbeing in the work place. There is no lack of knowledge on the subject.

"Perhaps we need to think of work in a new way. Opinion polls support the idea that people in the Nordic countries don`t value personal wealth highest, as long as they have enough to get by.

Instead, many reckon a good common economy is the important factor. Competition at any price has no basic value in the Nordic working life either”, says Bjørg Aase Sørensen.

She underlines the power and possibility for change found in words. To lean forwards, to listen, to think new and to be encouraged to participate.

“Just think of what the works 'liberty, equality and fraternity' meant in France", she says.

Perhaps the notion of 'a sustainable working life' contains the same power to develop a future work place where we have the strength to keep working our entire working lives, and where the joy of working can have its renaissance.


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