This post was inspired by a letter that I read in the Observer a couple of weeks ago (just so you I managed to track down the author of the letter and obtained his permission to publish it. I’m sure you don’t care but I wanted to impress you with my cyber stalking abilities!).
Well, how convenient for neoclassical economics: upward mobility and socioeconomic status are not “good for you” (“Why being stuck in the same job is bad for you”, News , last week)? Promotion, higher income and status are already feted as the essential motivators to economic growth, hence justifying vast and increasing income and wealth differentials in the UK. Now those who fail this race also stand accused of being the hapless architects of their own ill health…
…If we perceive ourselves in a race, or feel compelled to join one, then, while winning might save us, we might also die in the process. A society that aspires to promote emotional wellbeing and less ill health needs to off subtle solutions, such as flatter income and status hierarchies, and cultures that genuinely value the contributions of all.
Lancing, West Sussex
Mr Barritt also mentions his father, who died at 46 after moving his family for idyllic Cornwall chasing promotion. This post is a difficult one for me to write actually. I am the type of person who constantly wants more, who regularly feels like there is a better life to be had, and who measures my value in terms of success, not necessarily material success, but certainly career and status. It is a constant source of stress to me that I am the only one of my friends who does not own their own house. And therein lies the rub: would homeownership, or my lack of it, be such a source of stress to me if none of my peers owned their own homes. Highly unlikely. It’s an often quoted fact that despite the trappings of 21st Century life, iPods, laptops, mobile phones etc. we are no happier now than we were 60 years old. I think that the impact of these gadgets, designed to improve our lives, is lessened further by their ubiquity.
It is hard to escape the reality that we measure ourselves and our success against those around us. Things like massive HD TVs, fancy clothes, flashy jewellery make us feel happy and special until everyone around us has the same thing. Even those who think they aren’t affected by what others think, or how they compare against others still do to some extent. Did you have a shower this morning? Put on some make up or shave? Do you think you would still do that if you were on a deserted island with no one else around? We do these things because that’s what society dictates, and not following those norms leaves us feeling like outsiders. I’ve been party to discussions on Mumsnet about things like whether one should shower every day. There are some people who are content to bath or shower every few days, and some who think it is nothing less than disgusting if you don’t shower each day. And others for whom a twice daily shower is regulation. But 100 years ago no-one would have been arguing about this. Even 50 years ago, weekly baths and a quick wipe with a flannel every day satisfied most people’s hygiene desires. Yet as we and technology evolve so do our collective standards. What was acceptable 50 years ago will make you a social pariah today.
Trying to keep up with society’s norms is hard work. Trying to keep up with society’s extremes is even harder. Yet people still want to have the looks and lives of celebrities and other successful people. When we focus on what we haven’t got that someone else has we are always going to be unhappy, there will always be something we don’t have, unless of course Bill Gates is reading my blog. I heard he does you know.
It’s not just about material possessions, that is just a symptom of the wider malaise. Another such symptom, which the letter above references, is the constant aspiration for better jobs, more successful positions. Books like Screw Work Let’s Play, and other motivational tomes are all about shaking off the shackles of banality and living the life we deserve. But for some people run of the mill jobs are all they can or want to aspire to. We should applaud that, revere it. Why is it that rock stars, Hollywood actors, or footballers get to make millions by doing something they love, surely the fact that they get to spend life doing what they enjoy is reward enough. It’s not like they work harder than nurses, or factory workers. It’s not like they are necessarily more intelligent than a supermarket cashier; you only have to listen to what comes out of the mouths of certain footballers or pop stars to realise that. And they are not necessarily morally superior either. Yet they have money, status, and power. They are glorified and celebrated.
What about the checkout person who is still smiling and polite after 8 hours of bleeping groceries through the checkout? What about the family who live in an overcrowded council house on minimum wage yet manage to bring up happy well rounded kids? What about the person going into their minimum wage job each day, their whole lives, working so as not to be a burden on anyone else? These people, who are satisfied and happy with their lives, should be celebrated, and their jobs should be valued and not demonised. I’d like to see a book released called “Stop wasting your time trying to be another entrepreneur and get a real job helping someone”.
Chiumento, a “talent management agency”, recently conducted some research into what motivated staff. Using their results they grouped workers into 5 categories based on what motivated them in their work, with factors ranging from organisational culture to company reputation. The full paper can be found here but there are some pertinent facts relating to this post. 41.3% of staff surveyed were categorised as Socialisers. For them the important factors in their jobs are a warm friendly environment, stability and a good work-life balance. Pay was is one of the least motivating factors for this group, as long as they feel they are being treated fairly. 19% are classed as Protectionists; they crave security and certainty, and while they want to be rewarded, they are willing to make sacrifices to get the security they need. Their career path and development are relatively low in importance. For the last three groups, Achievers, Materialists and True Believers, motivation is more likely to be drawn from the status of the company, the rewards and the need for personal development and advancement. It is both telling and gratifying to see that for about 60% of people just having a job that treats them well is enough. All these books trying to encourage people to chase riches are unnecessary for this 60%, they are happy already, thank you very much.
But despite these interesting figures, I feel we still need to change our society to value more than wealth and the trappings that come with it. Why should we feel a constant need to strive for more, a better job, more money, more stuff. We should be striving for more happiness, more creativity, more compassion. But not more than our neighbour, I’m not talking about swapping one race for another. I’m talking about getting out of the race and using all the free time we have when we aren’t stressing over our position in society.
I blame the Olympics. And Euro 2012, the Oscars and all these other competitions that glamorise winning, with no consolation prize for the runners up and the also rans. It may be that winning the race is a positive experience, and the sense of achievement good for your health, but what are the prospects for the majority of ‘losers’? I don’t doubt that being in a rubbish job is soul destroying and bad for your health, but maybe some of that is just a response to the way society views such jobs. We need to measure success in different ways, both in ourselves and in others.
I mentioned that this post is hard for me to write. I am a naturally ambitious and aspirational person, and put a great store in my own personal success. Unfortunately my dilettante ways and difficulty in seeing projects through to the end means that I rarely meet my own goals. In one of the books that I read on personality it said that people of my personality type often go through life never feeling completely satisfied. Before I would have thought that was a good thing, that it showed ambition and drive. Increasingly I’m finding the feeling rather sad and exhausting. With the finish line nowhere in sight I think it is time for me to think about getting out of the race.