There are almost 2.5 million people unemployed in the UK. Those at least are the official figures. Over 7% of the workforce. It’s become a job in itself just looking for a job. Even the most qualified find it hard with one in ten graduates still failing to find a job a full year after graduating.
Economists and politicians will point to a host of possible causes, but Srila Prabhupada suggested that one main reason for labour not working might be our ‘labour saving’ technologies. “You have created a machine that can do the work of fifty men and now those fifty men are unemployed. Is this progress?”
Well, that’s how most of us see it. I guess it depends upon your paradigm. If you believe life to be about bodily enjoyment then you will likely view work as a bit of a problem. You want to free up time to relax and do things you enjoy, which is not usually work. Then there is the all important profit motive. If a machine is cheaper than manpower then that manpower will find itself added to the jobless stats. And so it is that a great welter of machinery has come into being, along with an equally huge mass of idle persons.
But has it made us happier? This is surely the critical question. For those in the dole queues the answer is not likely to be yes. ‘Unemployment depression’ is a recognised condition. And where work is scarce many of us are forced to do jobs we detest; again hardly a formula for a happy life or indeed a better society. Mark Twain observed that “the fellows who groan and sweat under the weary load of toil they bear never can hope to do anything great. How can they when their souls are in a ferment of revolt against the employment of their hands and brains? The product of slavery, intellectual or physical, can never be great.”
It is not only the direct misery of having no work or work you hate that is problematic; there is also the question of how to support those millions of out of work people. It certainly doesn’t make for easy economics. Still more social issues arise from the old idiom that an ‘idle mind is the devil’s playground’. With increasing numbers of unengaged and bored young persons hanging around on our streets, trouble is sure to follow. Especially when they become desperate for the cash they cannot earn.
The Vedic paradigm works on the assumption that human life has a higher spiritual purpose; that we are meant for self realisation. Actual happiness is derived from this direction, from inner contact with the spiritual, rather than from external sense pleasure. With such a paradigm and its attendant culture there is far less need to advance technology in order to increase material comfort. Those who are happy within themselves are less concerned with their worldly situation. Srila Prabhupada called this ‘simple living and high thinking.’
The simple life of Vedic society means one closer to the land; an agrarian lifestyle where most people grow their own food within local economies. We can easily produce everything we need in this way. The basic requirements of the body are analysed as eating, sleeping, mating and security, and these can be obtained without excessive hard work. Prabhupada would often point out that the animals have no industry and technology but still they obtain all the same necessities as us simply by nature’s arrangement. Life used to be like that everywhere, with everything produced more or less locally by local farms and traders. In many parts of rural India still one will find such a lifestyle where people hardly travel beyond the few villages in their immediate locality. And they certainly seem happy enough.
But human society is fast moving away from this kind of life. Local economies are being swallowed in the engulfing tide of globalisation. Great corporations and conglomerates are producing all our necessities, as well as a whole heap of not so necessaries, and all we can do is try to get a job with them so we can get the money to buy all that stuff. We find ourselves completely at their mercy in so many ways, dependent on fragile infrastructures and supply chains, along with volatile market forces controlled by cash hungry investors.
All this so called progress over the centuries has been driven by the belief that we can somehow improve our material sense pleasure. Atheism and a failure of religion to give people a real spiritual taste lies at its heart. It has been the march of ‘civilisation’ which Prabhupada simply dismissed as “sophisticated animal life”. Virtually all human endeavour now is about advancing material facilities. The idea that life is meant for self and God realisation is all but gone, along with the wonderful experience of pure spiritual happiness, far superior to any worldly joy. But only when we rediscover this spiritual pleasure can we reverse the materialistic trend that appears headed for disaster.
And it surely does seem that disaster looms. Unemployment with its attendant difficulties is just one of many social problems we have created. A host of environmental issues coming out of our new technologies now threaten our happy lifestyle, which is anyway not that happy with those pesky depression figures heading ever upward. In the UK, child and mental health service caseloads have risen over 40% over the last three years. One in ten 1 – 15 year olds has a mental health disorder and the UK has one of the highest levels of self harm in Europe. This has contributed to more and more alcohol and substance abuse and dependence. In Britain this alone costs around £39 billion per year. Then there is global poverty and starvation due to one side of the world exploiting the other for its resources. Meanwhile, in the bloated and spoiled developed world another burgeoning problem is family breakdown. In its report ‘Every Family Matters’, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) stated that one in three children born in the UK today will experience parental divorce. Which of course leads to so many other issues. And so it goes.
There is a crisis on our streets. In a recent speech to the Charities Parliament, the chairman of the CSJ, Iain Duncan-Smith said, “You are working in communities without hope. It is not that they have even known hope and had it taken away. Rather, the people in the communities you work with are quite literally without hope: they are hopeless.”
Prabhupada once said that in modern society we first of all put ourselves into anxiety and then we struggle to get out of it. “That is your heroism”, he said.
In a properly functioning Vedic society, examples of which are now very hard to locate, everyone is engaged according to their particular qualities, doing what they enjoy and can do well. There is no jostling for promotion and ever increasing salaries. People are satisfied due to their spiritual practise and they understand life’s goal, which is not ephemeral material pleasure and security, but eternal spiritual happiness. A house built upon rock rather than sand, as one Jesus Christ advised a long time ago.
It is a simple formula. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, “Grow food, worship me and work for my pleasure. Thus you will be happy in this life and the next.” It is time we put it to the test.