It can’t be wrong to work for a living

Allister Heath
HOLD the front page – or rather, please don’t. Page 2 will do just fine. What I’m about to “reveal” is only news to a small, close-minded elite of out of touch politicians, left-wing academics and social engineers. Believe it or not, but given the choice, people will pick a well-paid job with a less happy lifestyle (long hours, stress, uninteresting tasks) over a less well-paid job with a happier lifestyle. That is the main finding from an experiment involving thousands of adults and students conducted by a team of economists. Obvious, really, to anybody who knows anything – yet bizarrely, the news will have come as a shock to many of those in and around the government, especially those who have inherited large sums of money. It is easy for people who have the luxury of pursuing a career that satisfies them to look down on those for whom work is primarily a means to an end – providing for themselves and their families – yet those who sneer at such motives are being shockingly patronising in an age of austerity, declining living standards, wealth-destruction and elevated unemployment.

The study refutes the view that the goal of government policy should be to directly pursue happiness rather than to create the conditions for prosperity. Happiness – as measured in surveys – is not a goal for many people and is intentionally traded-off with other aspects of life. As Alex Rees-Jones of Cornell University, one of the authors, points out, if governments design policies to maximise happiness, they will end up imposing lifestyle choices and policies that people don’t actually want. The research doesn’t mention this, but we saw that in France a few years ago when absurd limits were imposed on people’s working hours, partly in the name of boosting happiness: millions were angry, and ultimately undoubtedly less happy, as they genuinely wanted to work more and earn more to provide for their families. The best policy, as ever, is freedom and individual liberty.

The researchers asked people to choose between a number of scenarios. Choices included picking either a job paying £49,000 per year which lets you get 7.5 hours of sleep a night or a job that pays £73,000 but which allows just 6 hours sleep. Many gave one answer for what would make them happiest (usually more sleep, less money) and another answer for what option they would choose (more money, less sleep). They would often choose an unhappy option if they thought it would give them greater purpose, social status, control or help their family.

The lesson for the government is simple: ditch all the nonsense about trying to promote happiness, which in fact merely reduces opportunities. At a time when the proportion of young people not in work, education or training is at a record high, we need more jobs and more economic growth, not mumbo-jumbo and compulsory reeducation. We need to boost Gross Domestic Product (GDP), not worry about Gross National Happiness (GNH). The previous government’s obsession with our “work-life” balance was always based on a meaningless artificial dichotomy. It some cases its sole purpose was to justify laziness and a culture of entitlement. It certainly feels very 2007 to speak in those terms these days. If we want to afford to consume more in the years ahead – including more healthcare and other services – we will need to work harder, longer and smarter to pay for it.
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