For the love of Money!
An interesting article in the SMH by Ross Gittins on our societies love of money.
It’s all about balance in life, not payments
July 13, 2005
There is a case for change regarding annual leave; the rule should be use it or lose it, writes Ross Gittins.
It’s not hard to look at the news and decide the Americans are in the process of really stuffing up their society. Nor is it hard to conclude that where the Yanks go, we follow. What’s hard is to work out what it is we’re doing that’s making our community increasingly dysfunctional.
I suspect it may be a lot of little things, each of which doesn’t seem too terrible, with the cumulative effect escaping our notice. I think we caught a fleeting glimpse of one of them in last week’s contretemps over giving workers the right to cash in half their annual leave.
Forget the fact that, as the Howard Government and the employers were quick to point out, Labor and the unions had been party to similar deals. That just proves most of us are guilty of putting too much emphasis on work at the expense of leisure and, in consequence, family life. Of failing to achieve a sensible balance in our lives.
Think about paid annual leave. It’s an expense governments have forced on employers, starting with one week in 1941 and reaching four weeks in 1973.
With what justification? It’s obvious. People with full-time jobs need a decent break for rest and (literally) re-creation. Those with intellectually or emotionally demanding jobs need it, but so do people with jobs that are physically demanding. We also need time for extended, relaxed interaction with our children during school holidays.
If the justification for this imposition on employers hasn’t diminished - and I’d say that, with the intensification of work and the quickening pace of life, it’s actually increased - where on earth is the justification for letting people take the money, not the leave?
To say, as some politicians and employer groups do, that it makes the labour market more “flexible” and gives workers greater “choice” is to reveal that your values are out of whack.
What it says is that, as a society, we’re putting ever more emphasis on production and consumption, and ever less on leisure and wellbeing.
Why would employers be happy to see workers taking money rather than leave? To maintain production. Why would workers want to take the money? To spend it on additional consumption - or pay off debts from previous consumption.
Of course, a factor contributing to the temptation is that many workers have accrued large amounts of leave. According to a Newspoll survey commissioned by the Australia Institute in 2002, 57 per cent of full-time workers said they’d taken less than all their leave that year.
Of these, 39 per cent said they were saving their entitlement for a future holiday (don’t believe it), while 42 per cent said they couldn’t get time off work and 11 per cent said they enjoyed work or money more than time off.
I’d say that if any further government intervention is called for, it should be a new condition: use it or lose it.
In theory, the economists’ standard model puts a lot of emphasis on the value of leisure. In practice, it’s always being overlooked, partly because of the economists’, politicians’ and businesspeople’s mania for judging progress solely in terms of the growth in gross domestic product - for putting production and consumption ahead of wellbeing.
Remember how, in the 1970s, people used to foresee enormous reductions in working hours and wonder how on earth we were going to occupy all that leisure time?
What a joke when you consider how much longer and harder so many of us work these days. Whatever happened to that crazy idea?
I’ll tell you. We could have significantly reduced working hours - we had the improvement in the productivity of labour to allow us to afford it - but we chose not to.
I’ve no doubt that many production-obsessed bosses are happy with the way it’s gone: everyone - well, most of us - working longer and harder for real wages that are very much higher than they were 30 years ago.
But equally, I’ve no doubt that, had most workers preferred shorter hours to higher real wages - more buying power - that’s the way it would have gone. We opted for the money, not the leisure.
Why? Because - with a fair bit of help from all the advertising and marketing to which we’re subjected - we’ve acquired an addiction to material goods.
Much of this involves our self-defeating struggle to achieve social status - or at least avoid losing it - through our conspicuous consumption. Psychological research shows that we’re not as rivalrous about the holidays we take as we are about our clothes, cars, homes and children’s schools.
In consequence, we “consume” too little leisure for our own good.
As part of this, we’ve come increasingly to think of leisure as something you buy rather than something you have or do. Partly because we’re so busy and partly because leisure equipment - from boats to the latest electronic doodad - can be used to display our status, leisure has become more capital-intensive and less labour-intensive.
Music-making is something you do with a stereo, a walkman, a CD player or an iPod, it’s not a noise you make yourself with your friends. Sport is something you watch on your home theatre, not something you play.
The latest gear is so expensive that we work - give up leisure - to buy the leisure equipment we don’t have the leisure to enjoy. I noted an economist quoting as a laudable example of increased choice the worker who cashed in his annual leave so he could buy a plasma TV.
Capital-intensive leisure tends to be more solitary - watching TV, playing computer games or surfing the net - whereas labour-intensive leisure tends to involve more interaction with family and friends.
It also tends to be more passive, adding to the community’s growing problems with obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Our politicians, economists and businesspeople have yet to learn that what we need in our lives is not more money, but more balance.