Category Errors

  • Peter Frase

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 André 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.