Being a reader of this blog, you’re obviously dynamic, tenacious and results driven in today’s hyper-productive world of work.
You’re quite possibly a senior executive of a cutting-edge global enterprise that pushes the envelope, is redefining the business paradigm, creating new markets while delivering high levels of customer delight each and every day.
As a self-starter, you’re no doubt great under pressure; because you relish the fast-paced, flexible and dynamic environments where your excellent organisational, interpersonal and communication skills excel – along with your forensic attention to detail. Like you, I find few things more exciting than managing multiple projects and delivering fantastic results within tight deadlines and budgets. In fact, I get quite aroused just thinking about it.
The language of job ads is full of all these allusions to being thrusting and domineering (phwoar!) because it’s designed to appeal to you and your irrepressible, go-get-it personality. And it gets everywhere. A few years ago, my attention was drawn by a job ad for the Royal Mail, which was recruiting postmen to work the busy pre-Christmas period here in Broadstairs.
On the cutting edge
In addition to a shopping list of letter-sorting and mail-carrying skills, suitable candidates were also required to demonstrate an ability to responsibly manage a bicycle. Yes, even holding, moving, mounting (steady on!) and, perhaps, even riding (wa-hey!) a bicycle got the full job ad treatment. Imagine how alienating it must have been if, having satisfied the full range of mail-handling criteria, the bike skills ended up being the deal-breaker.
Companies obviously want the best candidates for the roles they need to fill and so they sell themselves to attract you, their target audience, because you are driven by notions of dynamism, proactiveness, cutting-edge, customer-focused, results-orientated nonsense. And, in their job applications, candidates respond in kind.
The result is an appointment process akin to the exchange of party manifestos written for a general election: all those involved suspect they’re fantasy, written with perhaps more than a taint of cynical misrepresentation, but are nevertheless part of a dance we embrace on our march to a brighter future. Welcome to the world of work!
Crushed by the wheels of industry
Work plays a central role in most people’s lives, whether it’s paid or unpaid. For many of us, it defines who we are. For some, being at work is boredom itself while, for others, it’s a vocation. Either way, work helps give our lives meaning and a sense of progression and achievement – as well as an income.
But it’s a double-edged sword. Keep expectations realistic, and you could indeed find contentment. Realistic expectations aren’t what drive us, though, leaving us with the obvious temptation to submit completely to work’s allure – particularly as the whole ‘work thing’ is supported by an ideology and rationale that’s deeply embedded in our psyche. Both the rationale and ideology go well beyond the need to get things done and earn a living.
The narrative goes something like this: work hard and you will be rewarded with money and opportunity. Through work, you become the provider of a better lifestyle – not just for yourself, but your partner and family. There’s also always the chance of self-betterment through the acquisition and development of skills, objects of desire and financial independence.
Self-made men and women
A key component of the ideology is the enticement of social mobility. You might have been born into a family of drunks and drug addicts on some god-forsaken housing estate in the back of beyond, but with dexterity, determination and drive, you can leave all the squalor behind and move into a higher social strata.
If you’re lucky, you can achieve this while avoiding all those motivational one-day seminars held at anonymous hotels in anonymous locations around the country. If you’re really lucky, you could even start taking luxuries for granted. Whatever, the celebration of ‘self-made’ men and women who accumulate great wealth only serves to emphasise the desirability of the prize and the deft skills needed to acquire them. The high life is available to all if only we had the luck, inspiration, energy and self-belief.
To play the game effectively, you the candidate must assume the (mental) position because good things don’t just land in your lap. Getting on requires ‘flexibility’, your acceptance of self-exploitation and deferment of gratification.
After all, not everyone can get on The Apprentice and be treated to a slap-up meal hosted by Michelin two-star chef Michel Roux Jr just for beating another team at selling conkers to French people. But doing so means trusting a process that may not deliver what you desire while accepting your self-sacrifice as a standard part of the deal.
Social mobility: is work a route to the top?
When the first sentence in an official report on UK social mobility reads “fairness is a fundamental value of the Coalition government”, you know you’re in for an entertaining read. But no end of the strategising therein can hide the stark fact that there is limited social mobility in the UK.
The report, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers, says that a “fair society is an open society, one in which every individual is free to succeed”. It then goes on to add: “No one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth. What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did.”
“Social mobility,” it continues, “is a measure of how free people are to improve their position in society. Fairness is about social mobility – the degree to which the patterns of advantage and disadvantage in one generation are passed onto the next. An unfair society is one in which the circumstances of a person’s birth determine the life they go on to lead. Fairness means everyone having the chance to do well, irrespective of their beginnings.”
Well, on that basis, UK society is unfair – not a great incentive. The report shows that parental income and social class have a huge bearing on a child’s life chances. The die is cast in the early years and continues into adult life: children from poorer families perform worse at school than their middle-class compatriots, and this limits their impact in employment.
Only a quarter of boys from working class backgrounds get professional or managerial jobs. Just one in nine children with parents from low income backgrounds reach the top income quartile, while half of those with parents in the top income quartile stay there. The link between parents’ income and the income of their children when adults in Britain is among the strongest of Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development member countries. Parental income has over one-and-a-half times the impact on male incomes in Britain compared with Canada, Germany and Sweden.
Britain’s rates of occupational mobility for men are below the international average and bottom of the range internationally for women. Said the report: “Women outperform men throughout the education system yet do not do as well in the labour market, with pay not reflecting their qualification levels. There is a persistent labour market penalty associated with becoming a mother.” So no fairness there, then.
But though Britain’s social mobility is poor by international standards, it’s still not as bad as in the US. A study led by Swedish economist Markus Jäntti found that 42% of US boys in families living on the bottom fifth of incomes remain there in adulthood, a higher level of persistent disadvantage than in Denmark (25%) and Britain (30%).
According to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, just 8% of American men rose from the bottom fifth of incomes to the top fifth against 12% in Britain and 14% in Denmark. Nearly two-thirds of US boys and girls raised in the top fifth stay in the top two-fifths. Two-thirds of those born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.
The reality of low mobility in the US is completely at odds with the widespread perception among Americans that hard work leads to economic progression. Americans are among the world’s most optimistic of succeeding in their meritocratic, ‘classless society’.
According to the Brookings Institute paper, 69% of Americans “agree with the statement that ‘people are rewarded for intelligence and skill’, the highest percentage across 27 countries participating in an international survey of social attitudes conducted between 1998 and 2001.” Americans might think positive but, on the figures, the US is a more class-restricted society even than Britain.
A life of regrets?
So, rather than being the route to ascending social class, the figures suggest that work simply maintains the status quo, perpetuating the distribution of life chances, power relations and distribution of wealth across generations. Though some individuals defy economic and social gravity, they are the exception to the rule. Given this dynamic, it is easy to see why many people feel they are running on a treadmill just to stay still.
But what of our apparent commitment to the work ethic? What cost does this extract from us? And if we remove the stuff about betterment, social mobility and earning a living, would we still invest so much of our time, energy and emotion into our work?
Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware, who cared for patients during the last three to 12 weeks of their lives, suspects not. In her blog, Inspiration and Chai, she talks about the regrets of the dying and the common themes that she encountered “again and again”.
The lives of others
Ware sums up the most commonly expressed regret as: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Listening to her patients, it was “easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”
The second most commonly stated regret was: “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” Though this was commonly heard from women, many – coming by definition from an older generation – had not been the main breadwinners and so their sense of regret did not possess the same poignancy as the men’s.
Ware says: “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.” Chiming with this, the fifth most commonly cited regret was summed up as: “I wish I had let myself be happier.”
But we are H A P P Y
Research data and official figures do not, generally, suggest that work is a source of unhappiness. The latest OECD Better Life Index, published last week, gives the UK 6.9 (out of 10) and 7.2 for life satisfaction and work-life balance respectively … which doesn’t sound that bad.
The US gets 7.5 and 6.7 – more life satisfaction than in Britain but a poorer work-life balance – while the French, despite their fine wines, refined dining and pretty surroundings, have a much worse life satisfaction score (6.3), despite a good work-life balance (8.1). Perhaps our Gallic chums have higher standards – or are just not working enough.
Australia, however, continues to be our ray of sunshine, having been ranked the happiest developed nation for the third year in a row with a life satisfaction rating of 8.1, despite a work-life balance figure of 6.5.
These sorts of findings are not wholly inconsistent with what’s been reported before, either. Sticking with the UK, for instance, the apparently now-defunct Happiness at Work Index reported in its last posting in February 2010 that 78% of respondents enjoyed ‘high’ levels of happiness, an increase of two percentage points on the previous quarter.
Pressures of ambition
Yet policymakers, social scientists and psychologists seem to feel that, for all its benefits, modern industrial society faces a wave of alienation and disaffection, as demonstrated by rising levels of reported anxiety. Perhaps we are driven by the dream and the everyday need to pay the bills, and that the regrets expressed to Bronnie Ware reflect deep-seated emotions that only find expression once the pressures of ambition, lifestyle protection and debt slavery no longer retain their power.
Ware obviously thinks so: “By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.”
Now that’s a narrative I could really be turned on by.