Category Errors

May 18th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, Work  |  3 Comments

I’ve argued on various occasions that in the quest for full employment, we ought to be less obsessed with maximizing job creation and more concerned with making it easier and better to not be employed.

The most persuasive argument against this view is that unemployment is really bad for people, and they don’t like it, and therefore it’s very important to minimize its incidence. This analysis at VoxEU by three European economists initially seems like it’s going to validate that perspective. They write that while “people adapt surprisingly well to changes in their lives”, the unhappiness produced by unemployment is an exception: “the life satisfaction of the unemployed does not restore itself even after having been unemployed for a long time.”

However, the authors go on to ask why the unemployed are so persistently unhappy, and in doing so they clarify an ambiguity that always arises when the effects of unemployment are discussed. Is unemployment bad for people because the experience of working is good for them, or because unemployment carries a powerful social stigma? (Leaving aside, of course, the most obvious reason for the unpleasantness of being jobless—being broke.)

The answer to this question has important political implications. If work is inherently life-improving, then job-creation schemes—even of the useless hole-digging variety—are more desirable than simply handing money to the unemployed, which would risk leaving people isolated, dissolute, and cut off from meaningful activity. If, however, the negative impacts of unemployment are primarily due to social stigma, then it would be more helpful to combat the ideology that equates working for wages with contributing to society.

The VoxEU column attempts to pry apart these two views about work using survey data from the German Socio-Economic Panel. The clever approach is to look at the change in self-reported life satisfaction among people who move from being unemployed to being retired. The authors observe that “[e]ntering retirement brings about a change in the social category, but does not change anything else in the lives of the long-term unemployed.” Yet they find that the shift from being unemployed to being retired brings about immediate and dramatic increases in happiness, even when controlling for other factors:

The average life satisfaction of a long-term unemployed male living in a partnership and with average personal characteristics (e.g. state of health and income) rises by approximately 0.3 points on a life satisfaction scale from 0 to 10. If he was actively looking for a job before retiring, his average life satisfaction even rises by nearly 0.7 points, and even more so if he experienced several unemployment spells in the past. Women who became unemployed for the first time shortly before retiring hardly benefit at all from retiring. However, if they had been unemployed several times during their life, their life satisfaction also rises considerably when they retire, by as far as 0.9 points if they were actively looking for work prior to retiring.

A comparison may help appreciate this observed rise in life satisfaction. The experience of a marriage causes a mere 0.2 point increase in average life satisfaction (see Lucas et al 2003). This comparison shows how strongly long-term unemployed people benefit from the change of their social category while retiring and the associated relief from not having to meet the social norm of being employed anymore. This underlines the importance of identity for individual wellbeing.

The unemployed become happier, it turns out, as soon as they stop thinking of themselves as workers. This result suggests that the harm caused by unemployment has a lot to do with the way we, as a society, regard the unemployed. We treat paying work as a sure mark of a person’s worth, even though this conviction has no coherent rationale.

An immediate political application of this finding is as a rebuke to those who like to call for raising the retirement age for Social Security in the United States. With unemployment still high, and older workers in particular struggling to find jobs, the easiest way to immediately raise the well-being of Americans would be to lower the retirement age.

For those of us who write about politics and the economy, there is a bigger lesson. Liberals and even leftists constantly repeat the mantra that unemployment is bad for people, and therefore job creation is an urgent necessity. I’ve done it myself at times. But in glibly repeating this formula, we unwittingly help to reinforce the stigma of unemployment. My anti-work themed writings, like my recent Jacobin essay on the politics of getting a life, are my tiny attempt to contest this picture of the world.

I got a touching email from a reader the other day, thanking me for that essay, and for reinforcing his conviction that the rejection of work is more than just childish or lazy. But, he said, his one attempt to share the article with a normally open minded friend resulted in scorn and dismissal, leaving him “afraid to broach the subject with anyone else”.

The stigmatization of the unemployed feeds that fear, and the fear reinforces the stigma. In the short term, job creation may be a necessary response to our immediate crisis. But the longer term project is to disconnect waged work from its associations with material well-being and with social prestige. With respect to the material side, I’ll just keep quoting AndrĂ© Gorz: “the distribution of means of payment must correspond to the volume of wealth socially produced and not to the volume of work performed.” But studying the unhappiness of the unemployed demonstrates that it’s not only the means of payment that need to be redistributed, but the sources of social esteem as well. This is why post-work politics is simultaneously a demand for policies like the Basic Income and an ideological campaign against the hegemony of the work ethic.

Responses

  1. Joe says:

    May 22nd, 2012 at 2:12 pm (#)

    You are right about the stigma that faces even advocates for a postwork society or a facet of it like basic income. In the anti-hunger nonprofit where I work as an admin-assistant, we do food-stamp outreach in addition to lobbying and other “grasstops” organizing, and there is a lot of resistance to talking about the program as anything but a safety-net. Lots of fairly genuine advocacy for those those on or eligible for food assistance (i.e. people shouldn’t be hungry or malnourished), as well as lots of boosting of the program as an economic multiplier, but questioning the way work society produces hunger is anathema. I do not exactly fear for my job over it, but it makes it extra-draining to pay lip-service insofar as it’s demanded of me.

  2. Dan Kervick says:

    September 2nd, 2012 at 11:30 am (#)

    I doubt that there will over be a post-work society. Human desires is effectively endless. Historical experience suggests that as human beings improve their productivity in existing spheres of endeavor, they always make use of the time that is freed up to move on to the satisfaction of other wants through the application of human effort. The total balance of work – sleep – play doesn’t change much. I doubt there is any robot future of leisure awaiting us. If the robots handle most of the production that we do now, we will move on to apply strenuous human effort to new areas.

    Work is seen as good, because improvement in our lives always results from the application of some kind of work effort to existing resources. And so long as we do things together in social groups, we will always be interested in the systems we use for dividing the society’s needed work effort among ourselves in some fair manner. So I I doubt the stigma attaching to unemployment will ever go away. Human existence is demanding, and so long as human beings live in societies, there will always be some form of tacit or explicit social contract stipulating that the share of the benefits one receives from the output of the society’s combined work effort should be paid for by a work contribution of one’s own.

    The fact that human beings who are not working desire to work, and feel bad about themselves for not being able to find an opportunity to contribute their labor to their communities, is a moral fact to be celebrated, as I see it – and not overcome through some effort to valorize unequally distributed leisure and undermine the sense of a social contract. Of course, if someone wants to detach themselves entirely from receiving the benefits of social life – benefits than are produced by the work of others – then they should be free to do so. But citizens in a democracy should never be called on to support with their own labor the lives of those who are able to work, but are simply unwilling to work – those who take without giving.

    It is criminal that we continue to overemphasize antisocial free enterprise systems for organizing human work, which permit circumstances in which people who are desperately eager to contribute their work effort to society are denied that opportunity. There is always far more that needs doing than there are people to do it, so there is no excuse for this kind of arrangement. If private enterprise cannot produce work opportunities sufficient to employ all of our people, then we need public enterprise to step up.

  3. Redefining Work | Chicago Activism says:

    February 21st, 2014 at 10:49 pm (#)

    […] as work that’s doing the work. And I’d like to believe it’s possible to deconstruct that ideology, rather than consigning ourselves to a future of endless make-work in the name […]

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