It certainly seems that in life’s frantic struggle to compete and be competitive, one’s level of productivity is the definitive measure of one’s worth. But does this really need to be the case?
“Do what you love” (DWYL) is the unofficial catchcry of modern society. Even though we have very different ideas about what that is.
But for most of us, the ones that aren’t fortunate enough to know what they want to do and are able to do it, it’s about paying bills, getting through another workday, and making sure the kids do their homework and don’t overdo their screen time — forget about trying to make a difference in the world.
Or perhaps, as Professor of Economics and Political Economy at the University of Leeds David Spencer writes, doing less of what we hate is all most of us can hope for.
Doing less of what you hate
A. J. Veal, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology Sydney, reminds us that half a century ago it was predicted that advanced industrial societies would enjoy substantially more leisure time. Working fewer hours was deemed a key indicator of social and economic progression.
Through a period of two world wars and the 1930s depression, the standard working week had fallen from 60 to 40 hours, and the widely-held consensus was that the trend would continue.
This was in line with the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes’ solution to unemployment, which was to share work more evenly across the working population.
In his 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he famously suggested that productivity gains could be used to reduce work to three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour work week. And in a letter to TS Eliot in 1945, Keynes wrote that this was “the ultimate solution” to reducing unemployment.
The “leisure society” is now just a fanciful idea
But as Spencer points out: the notion of creating less work that might provide a better standard and quality of life goes against the well-established tradition of hard work and one’s dedication to his or her job.
So, it’s no wonder that working hours have increased. The average person has less leisure time than he or she had half a century ago. And as Veal notes, the idea of a “leisure society” is now fanciful.
As I wrote in a recent article, Australians in full-time jobs work some of the longest hours of any developed country — the 5th highest hours worked per capita and the 12th highest income in the OECD.
Of course, working fewer hours usually means less pay. And there is already a growing cohort of the “working poor” and the underemployed. Indeed, the imbalance that we have created over the last several decades — between income and living costs — is a “wicked problem” to fix. Dare I say it needs genuine reform, not ephemeral offerings.
Jobs and growth …
In contrast to working less, conventional employment policy has always been to create more jobs and more work by growing the economy. Working less evokes notions of laziness and is viewed as positively un-Australian.
And, naturally, employers want highly educated, job-ready candidates. And from a macro perspective, they also want a sustainable workforce of fit and healthy people dedicated to doing their best.
All that’s good and well, but has anyone “genuinely” posed the question:
post last summer’s firestorms and the current COVID-19 pandemic, how sustainable is our workforce going forward. I mean, what is the current mental and physical state of workers, and how engaged are they?
Worker engagement is the key to workforce sustainability
According to a recent global poll by Gallup, the vast majority of people hate their job and their boss — the poll revealed that 85 per cent of full-time workers globally are not engaged at work.
Jim Clifton, the chairman and chief executive officer of Gallup Washington, D.C., and the author of the poll report, believes that this is why productivity has been declining for decades.
With only 15 per cent of the workforce engaged, optimising productivity is impossible. Be mindful that research has shown that less work can be more productive.
It certainly seems that in life’s frantic struggle to compete and be competitive, one’s level of productivity is the definitive measure of one’s worth.
But productivity-wise, as a country, we’re lacking. Compared to the U.S., our service industries are between 20 and 60 per cent less productive.
And if we believe Sturgeon’s Law has substance, the claim that 90 per cent of everything we produce is crap — 90 per cent of books, clothes, toys, and electrical goods, for instance — then the vast amount of work done to manufacture them is not only wasted time and effort but incredibly damaging to the environment.
As demonstrated by the mountains of mass-produced goods that end up as landfill each year and the greenhouse gas emissions generated in their production, which renders our contemporary version of productivity unsustainable and thus, already obsolete.
A not so sustainable workforce?
Productivity aside, last week was mental health week, and warnings of a mental health epidemic after the pandemic have been ominous.
Sadly, and brutally visceral, as of August 2020 the leading cause of death in Australia among people aged 15 to 44 was suicide.
In 2016, the National Mental Health Commission estimated that the annual cost of mental ill-health in Australia was about $4000 per person or “a whopping $60 billion in total”.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the same survey revealed that 4.8 million (20.1 per cent) of Australians suffered from a behavioural or mental condition.
A recent survey of the mental health of 5070 Australian adults during the height of the pandemic (27 March to 7 April) found that 78 per cent of respondents reported that their mental health had worsened since the outbreak. Fifty per cent said loneliness and financial stress were the main worries.
Overweight and out of shape
The National Health Survey 2017-18 also revealed that 67 per cent of Australian adults were overweight or obese, and 47 per cent had one or more chronic conditions.
Which means that two-thirds of Australian adults are more or less obese and around half a carrying at least one chronic condition.
Obesity is now categorised as a disease and has reached epidemic proportions in Australia: “The direct health costs of obesity are estimated to exceed $2 billion annually.”
Obesity can lead to a multitude of ailments from cardiovascular disease to Type 2 diabetes and depression; as well as worse outcomes for many types of cancers.
These disorders are on the increase, and several are expected to spike significantly because of the pandemic.
Work-related stress is the silent killer
Apart from the fact that we are chronically out of shape, work-related stress is the silent killer and estimated to cost Australian businesses $14.8 billion a year in lost productivity and sick days.
As Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer writes in his book Dying for a Paycheck: “In today’s world, white-collar jobs are often as stressful and unhealthful as manual labour or blue-collar work — frequently more so.”
Seemingly invisible and accepted stress at work continues to grow, exacting a higher and higher physical and psychological toll on the workforce.
“The best form of welfare is a job”
Contrary to this, in keeping with Scott Morrison’s derogatory dogma, that “the best form of welfare is a job“, and all those able to work must work, we are led to believe that hard work will lead us to prosperity, self-realisation, and even deliver us from evil.
But as Spencer writes: “… this ideology is based on a myth that work can always set us free and provide us with the basis for a good life.” The hard work credo fails to confront and indeed conceals the fact that much of the work performed today is about doing “what you hate”.
Many of today’s jobs consist of menial subtasks — repetitious, soul-destroying, and tedious, allowing for little or no creativity, opportunities for learning or advancement.
Overall, our workforce is largely spent
And given that our workforce is largely spent, and most probably unsustainable in its current mental and physical state, we might even consider AI and automation as the only alternative.
I mean two out of three of us are overweight or obese, one in five suffers from a mental condition, one in six suffers from back problems which often hinder even the most fundamental of tasks, the vast majority of us are engaged in mind-numbing jobs we hate, work-related stress is covertly killing us, and our population is rapidly ageing.
Suffice to say, if the Australian workforce was a football team, you wouldn’t give it much chance of success.
And so it seems, that the best form of welfare is not a job. The best form of welfare is “doing what you love” — if you’re lucky enough!
Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.