We need solutions that are going to work not just for the short term, in terms of responding to the economic fallout of the Covid crisis, but that safeguard the long-term prospects of our planet too.
We need to shift the focus of our economic model, re-examine what we value as a society, and put the climate and our natural environment at the heart of our recovery from the pandemic.
Wales and the wider UK need to be moving towards a shorter working week, as well as some form of basic income. The issues aren’t disconnected. Many political parties and progressive thinkers have been calling for some form of basic income over the past decade, with critics once dismissing it as too radical or unfeasible.
What we’ve seen from the coronavirus crisis is that unprecedented situations need unprecedented solutions. There is now a strong case for exploring these policy solutions, for the survival of both people and planet.
Wales is in a two-week firebreak lockdown, marking a significant departure from the response from the UK Government to the ongoing pandemic. This isn’t the first time Welsh devolution has allowed for Wales to do things differently.
The then National Assembly for Wales (now Senedd Cymru), passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act in 2015. The legislation, still the only law of its kind in the world, aims to secure the interests of the future generations of Wales. The law also saw the creation of the Future Generations Commissioner, a post I have held since 2016.
My role is to act as ‘guardian’ of the interests of future generations. Since the Covid crisis, I have been advising the Welsh Government on how they should approach recovery by ensuring long term needs aren’t forgotten in decision-making.
Covid-19 has been described as a dress rehearsal for climate change. But it also provides an opportunity for us to radically rethink the ways we live and work and focus on how we can redesign this to support the well-being of people and planet. And a basic income and a shorter working week could have a positive impact on both.
May 2021 sees the next Senedd Elections here in Wales. Notably, the first election in which 16-17-year olds can vote for the first time. The message from younger generations is clear. They want decisive action on climate change and inequality.
Last week, I reminded politicians in Wales of their duty to young people when I unveiled the ‘Manifesto for the Future’. The manifesto includes 48 recommendations I believe political parties should be adopting: including piloting a basic income and working towards a shorter working week.
The world of work has changed and continues to evolve at pace. The last seven months alone have seen a dramatic shift in working practices, from remote working to upheaval to the gig economy. Shifts in welfare and in working time have traditionally happened around key crisis moments in the past century, including the two world wars.
We know that work is no longer a guaranteed route out of poverty. Before we began to see the economic impacts of Covid, more than half the people living in poverty in Wales today were in work.
There is a strong case for how the provision of a basic income, an unconditional, regular payment, could prevent further mass unemployment and poverty caused by the pandemic. A shorter working week could also help address work shortages as well as improving people’s work-life balance and therefore their well-being and that of their families and communities.
Both policies have the potential to be part of solving the unemployment crisis as companies across the UK cut hundreds and thousands of jobs.
Working with thinktank Autonomy, I have commissioned a feasibility study that will seek to provide answers to many of the often-asked questions around a basic income – including how it could be funded and who would receive it. There is an exciting opportunity for Wales to become the testbed for these policies, but there is much that the rest of the UK can learn from what works.
There are several studies that suggest working less is good for the planet. One study found that cutting the hours we work by 25 percent could cut our carbon footprint by 36.6 percent.
Breaking that link between work and consumption could have huge benefits for our natural environment. Less commuting time could mean less carbon emissions in our already saturated cities. Reduced working hours could mean more time given back to volunteering, to developing community enterprises, to spending more time with our families in local green spaces.
A focus on basic income could go a long way to addressing the large-scale inequalities we see in our current economic model. From zero-hours contracts, mass unemployment and uncertainties over the future of furlough schemes, a basic income could grant certainty in a time of crisis.
Some estimates suggest that around 120,000 people in Wales may be unemployed by the end of the year. There are particular concerns around the impacts felt for those in hospitality, tourism, the arts and recreation sectors.
Finding new ways to support these sectors, and the green economy, could be a first step towards exploring a broader and more ‘humane’ approach to supporting people and their livelihoods.
I believe we owe it to those who are currently struggling, as well as to future generations, to explore policies that could improve mental health, give more freedom of choice, and relieve pressure on public services like healthcare, while benefiting our environment at the same time.
I don’t think these potential solutions can be dismissed any more as utopian thinking or pie-in-the-sky policy.
Our current economic and financial models have been achieved as a result of natural resource exploitation and environmental damage, along with increasing levels of income inequality. As a result, we are already starting to hit environmental limits to economic growth.
We need solutions that are going to work not just for the short term, in terms of responding to the economic fallout of the Covid crisis, but that safeguard the long-term prospects of our planet too. Exploring the potential of a shorter working week and a basic income is the least we can do for both current and future generations.
Sophie Howe’s remit as the world’s only Future Generations Commissioner is to be the guardian of the interests of future generations in Wales, protecting tomorrow from today. She tweets @SophieHowe.
Sophie Howe is speaking at the launch of Wales Climate Week, on 2 November. It starts the countdown to the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow next November. To register for the online event, click here.