On 10  December 1948, a group of people with different legal and cultural backgrounds from regions all over the world, sat down in Paris as the United Nations General Assembly and ultimately ratified the Declaration of Human Rights.

The 30 articles were intended as a common standard of rights for all people and all nations. Since then, it’s been translated into 500 languages.

In the poetic preamble, it says

“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Sitting at Article 23, is “the right to work”.

Today, we get all academic and jargony about work, with multiple models and layers of capability frameworks, a gazillion of courses on influencing and stakeholder manipulation (read ‘politics’), whole libraries on individually getting ahead (read ‘it’s all about me’), another whole library of weird words (read ‘hustle’, ‘agile’, ‘scrums’ and ‘nimble’ as starting points) and way way too many acronyms.

And where did all this lead?

To conversations that no one can join without eating a lexicon, to workplaces structured to faux meritocracies decided at birth, a failure to include (or at least work for) the vast majority of us, and leadership models designed to manipulate and control.

That’s all well and good – even fun in the hands of some writers – but underneath all the jargon, we almost forgot what work was. A fundamental human right.

As people, we are hardwired to participate in the tribe. To be social. To belong to community. “Work” is not a place, a task, a role, or a title. It’s our opportunity to participate in the community – our opportunity to contribute. Our fundamental human right to belong.

In 1948, the simplicity of Article 23* was its power. It still is.

Four simple elements:

  1. the right to work, and to protection from unemployment
  2. without any discrimination, the right to equal pay
  3. the right to just remuneration to ensure an existence worthy of human dignity
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions

In those four simple statements, we enshrined and understood ‘work’ and how important it is to every one of us.

We could go deep and academic on each section, but they don’t need the overthinking. They’re so clear.

The right to work – is the right to contribute and belong. To open the door to an independent life and freedom from dependence on others.

Without any discrimination – is the right to fairness. To be treated as equal and as valuable as the person next to you.

Just remuneration – is the right to financial freedom and a good existence within society.

The right to be collective – is the power to stand up for yourself if, as an individual, if you don’t have the ability to do so on your own.

Without these rights, what do we have?

Depression and a lack of independence. We know this from large groups of people currently excluded or marginalised from work. People with disability, for example, have the highest rates of unemployment, and also markedly lower levels of independence, high incidences of depression and feelings of having no place. There’s good reason why there’s whole programs of work, aimed at enabling everyone to join the workforce, to avoid the fate of dependence when all they seek is to participate. To belong.

Discrimination and unfairness. A class of people, treated as ‘less than’ while they stand right alongside.

Unjust remuneration. Scrounging and scraping to pay this week’s bills. Additional jobs added and added, until the quilt of ‘gigs’ ways us down from being anywhere near well and capable.

An individual representation. Where the power of the individual is dwarfed by the organisation, and they’re forced to accept less than they know is fair.

With a very apolitical agenda, and without sounding like a comrade, these are things we would each wish for ourselves. For our children. For our friends. For our neighbours. And, with a little humanity and generosity, for everyone in the society we live in. Or even across the world.

Here’s an alarming conversation, I had recently with a big technologist.

“Only 30% of us will really need to work”, they said.

“What will the other 70% of us do?”, I asked.

“Oh, you will be in the 30%, so you will work”, she replied.

“Humour me, and imagine I’m in the 70% that doesn’t need to”, I challenged.

“Well, you can stay home and relax”, she offered.

“For how long?”, I asked.

“For as long as you like”, she continued, offering me some small modicum of choice. “You’d have a universal income and it would sustain you”. (On the inside, I giggled at being ‘sustained’ as an inspiring opportunity).

“Let’s see – A day or two of gardening. A day or two of Netflix bingeing. A few days, maybe a few weeks, of mountain walking, riding or surfing. That would wrap it up for me. Then, I’d want to get back into it. Earn a little extra to help my kids. Pay for a surgery that had long delays in the public system. Buy flowers for my Mum. What would I do then?”, I asked.

“You could relax. There would be no need to work”.

“You don’t know people”, I smiled quietly inside my head, “We’ll find a way”.

People, with all our irrational freedom of choice, will seek out opportunities to contribute, belong, participate and work.

So, as we design the future of work, let’s put the past (including these little old Human Rights) back to the front of our minds. If we do that as we employ people, work together, lead, collaborate, grow, evolve, seek out purpose and meaning -always thinking of others – maybe we can get that future of work to work better for more of us.

The right to work, is as fundamental as breathing, as shelter, as belonging.

71 years ago in Paris, we got the importance of work just right.

Listen to our first podcast ‘Article 23’ on our first topic ‘The Decent Human Test’

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