Has it ever occurred to you that, in all our economic striving, most of us – almost all our business people, economists and politicians, but also many normal people – are missing the point?
It occurred to me years ago, and I've thought about it often, but reading a little book by one of my gurus, Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in the US, has revved me up.
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Top ways to slack off at work
In every office there is always someone who has mastered the art of shirking their responsibilities. Here are five common ways employees loaf about at work.
In my job I have to focus mainly on whatever issues everybody else is getting excited about. I've written a lot lately about the budget deficit, mainly because I see the Coalition swinging from exaggerating the size and urgency of the problem while in opposition, to virtually ignoring it now it's in government.
They had one big ill-considered and ill-fated attempt to fix the problem in their first budget, but now they don't even want to think about it.
Of course, getting the budget back to surplus is really just a housekeeping measure. It doesn't advance our cause in any positive sense, it just stops problems building up for the future.
No, the more positive efforts to improve our lot have focused on the need for "reform". The economists have noticed that the rate of productivity improvement has slowed and, since improving our productivity is the main way we keep our material standard of living rising, they're casting around for something we could do to improve matters.
When economic-types look for things to improve, their first thought is to "reform" taxation in a way that does more to encourage people to "work, save and invest".
Sorry, but all this is missing the point. Schwartz's little book is called Why We Work, and he asks us to reconsider the most basic question in economic life: why do we work?
To most people that's a stupid question. We work to make money, which we then use to keep body and soul together and buy the other things we need to give us a happy or satisfying life.
Next question: do we enjoy our work? Answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no. Some people do most of the time; most people don't.
The basic economic model assumes that people don't enjoy work; they do it only for the money. And, except perhaps to the individual, whether they do or they don't isn't of great consequence.
Most employers organise work in ways designed to maximise their employees' productivity – their productiveness. If their workers happen to enjoy their jobs, that's their good luck. If they don't, that's not something a boss needs to worry about.
Schwartz's argument is that we've allowed money – and the economists' way of thinking about work, which goes back to Adam Smith in 1776 – to get us muddled between means and ends.
Money is merely a means, not an end in itself. The end money is meant to be a means to is life satisfaction. But if satisfaction is the object of the exercise, why on earth would we organise the economy on the basis that whether or not people get satisfaction from their jobs doesn't matter?
Why fixate on earning money to buy satisfaction when we could be doing much more to gain satisfaction while we earn?
When you remember how much of our lives we spend working, think what a fabulous "reform" it would be if more of us got more satisfaction from our work.
If we got more satisfaction from our work, economists and politicians wouldn't have to worry quite so much about ensuring our money income kept growing strongly so we could keep attempting to buy more satisfaction. (Tip: the satisfaction you get from enjoying your job and doing it well is more powerful than the satisfaction you get from buying more stuff.)
And if bosses got more satisfaction from their own jobs, maybe they wouldn't be so obsessed by achieving ever faster-growing profits so as to justify ever-bigger bonuses.
You'd think that, with all the status and executive assistants to wait on them and people to boss about, bosses would be rolling in job satisfaction. But when I see how obsessed they are with pay rises and bonuses, it makes me wonder if they actually hate their jobs more than most of their employees do.
Of all the company's workers, they're the ones showing most sign of only doing it for the money.
By now, I know, many managers will be thinking, if I made making sure my workers had a good time at work an objective, their productivity would suffer.
That's certainly why many jobs have been designed in the soul-destroying way they have been, and the mentality that informs the way many managers manage. Treat 'em mean to keep 'em keen.
But consider the reverse possibility. There's growing evidence that workers who gain satisfaction from their jobs try harder and think more about how they could do their jobs better. Is that so hard to believe?
I'm convinced greater effort to make jobs more satisfying could leave most of us better off with, at worst, no loss of efficiency.
How do employers go about making jobs more satisfying? How can someone with a deadly job make it more emotionally rewarding?
These questions have been well studied by industrial psychologists and Schwartz has lots of useful things to say. But I'll leave that for another day.
Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.