Nice work, if you can get it

When you were a kid, and people asked you what you wanted to be, what did you say?  I said I wanted to be a computer programmer, since my most conspicuously successful cousin Jonny was a computer programmer. Or a cowboy.

Anyway, I never wanted to be a professional footballer. It’s not hard to see why. After all these years, I’m still playing 5-a-side and I’m still terrible. A couple of times a week, I pay good money to play badly. My ‘game’ mostly consists of running around shouting inanities such as ‘square ball’, ‘back door’ and ‘man on’. From time to time, I may even shoot and, with a classic Scottish ‘sclaff’, hit the corner flag.

It’s costing me about £600 a year, as well as my knees.

Yet, in our society, some people do not have to spend £5 per hour to play football. Some get paid a bit more than the national minimum wage to take to the field. For example, Lionel Messi, the world’s top player, currently fills his boots with €31million a year. Even at impoverished Ibrox, a 75% pay cut can still leave you with a wage worth playing for.

So here’s the point: if you can become rich playing a game, what constitutes ‘work’ in the modern world? Money aside, what is the logical difference between a pastime and a job?

It can’t be about national productivity because, after 90 minutes of football, nothing is produced. Time is consumed but, season after season, the outputs of the beautiful game are as ephemeral as my own huffing and puffing. Feel free to point out the gulf between my skill level and Lionel Messi’s – possibly too large to be bridged by human understanding. But when traditional forms of ‘paid work’ are fading fast, the coming challenge for our society is just as massive.


Messi sees his pay packet


In truth, football is not that different from many other service sector jobs. When you get a haircut, what is produced – except a pile of clippings for the trainee to sweep up? But it still looks like work, as long as the stylist gets paid.

In my experience, you only get paid under four circumstances.

The first is a Star System in which a very small number of people are wildly over-compensated. Like the TV show said, ‘Fame costs’ but it also pays big-time. For personalities as well as products, being ‘front-of-mind’ means you get chosen more often. You get more work or more market share, in a self-perpetuating cycle. The star’s halo effect creates one of the major biases in human decision-making, but it’s not all image. You may indeed be infinitely more talented than anyone else. But, in many competitive sectors – even if you only win by a whisker – the winner takes all. So, you can be disproportionately rewarded for being marginally better, or even just lucky.

The second way in which you can be over-rewarded is also about Scarcity. If you have real knowledge and skills which are hard to acquire or replace – technical, scientific, creative – you’re being paid to do something other people simply can’t do. Expect to be highly paid, especially if your speciality is not well understood by the customer. Indeed, that’s one reason why cabals like medical quacks and tech geeks have their own esoteric terminologies: to baffle consumers and push prices up.

The third way in which most of us get moderately paid is Productivity. Put simply, somebody wants an extra pair of hands to get something done. As Woody Allen observed, 90% of success is turning up. Most of us turn up at our work 90% of the year, but are we really productive?

I always admired The Broons’ approach to doing the dishes – washing, drying and putting away their crockery like a Dundonian chain gang. In real life, more people don’t always make for more efficiency. Washing dishes is a two-person job: one to wash, one to put away, surely? Having ten sets of hands in the sink just doesn’t help. And, anyway, these days, isn’t that what the dishwasher is for?So, in everyday employment, you can find yourself in a long chain of dubious efficiency – and it can be hard to prove your worth. Plus there’s always the risk of new technology making your role redundant.

Finally, there’s Drudgery. People will pay you to do the crap jobs they don’t want to do themselves. Inevitably, the job is unrewarding: the work is hard, the pay’s poor and the customers rude. By contrast, the jobs which are easy and fun, and require no effort, knowledge, skill or talent are fool’s gold: they only exist on reality TV.

That’s an obviously simplistic view of employment. However, from our daily news, it’s equally obvious that our jobs market is not working for the good of society.

In Scotland today, 47% of 16-24 year olds are out of work. It’s a figure made all the more eye-boggling in the glare of the government’s controversial ‘unpaid work’ scheme.

At the same time, there’s eye-watering compensation being self-administered by the happy few. In our managerial culture, we have functionaries – not entrepreneurs or innovators – who wangle their way to the top of big businesses. Where a lot of money is sloshing around, they seem to manage to get quite a lot of it.

Sometimes, such people have a reputation for high competence. Take, for example, the well pored-over case of plain old Fred Goodwin. You can see that – with his reputation for self-aggrandisement and Thatcherite ruthlessness – ego-tripping and acquisitiveness would be perfect complements for a bank bent on the reckless pursuit of profit and global growth.

How easily we forget that Goodwin acquired his other title – Fred the Shred – for cost-cutting which is always code for firing people. Indeed, when business is good, such managers claim due compensation for performance. When business is bad, they tend not to fall on their swords though, but require more compensation for the difficult task of ‘re-structuring’ – code for letting people go too. Any fool can manage a business down, and many have. So, where’s the real incentive to create employment rather than economic havoc?

Part of the problem is that we are using the wrong measuring stick. We define work in terms of money. We pay one person to kick a ball about. We pay another to shuffle paper about. It doesn’t matter whether nothing or misery is created, as long as cash flows.

But, as Chicago law professor James Heckman noted, money doesn’t measure worth. It measures scarcity. So, when money itself is scarce, how do we value contribution to society? Because, certainly, the one thing we are not short of in Scotland is human capacity.

In a famous confrontation with some inner city youths, Professor Heckman asked them if they knew the difference between an elephant and a giraffe. Of course, they said. Then, argued Heckman, could you not spend a bit of time reading a story to a toddler?

We already know what makes society tick instead of sick. (It’s human interaction.) We know what makes us skilled. (Start young, keep practising.) We also know what makes us happy. (It’s not money.) So, isn’t it time we re-imagined the world of ‘work’? Should we not look for more useful ways for people to grow and learn and make a fair contribution to a fair society?

It’s often said that the best way to build a career is to discover your passion. That’s great advice, as long as your passion isn’t watching TV and eating chocolate. So, more than ever – and more than flipping fast food or stacking shelves for free – we need to help people find a purpose and passion in their lives. For too many people right now, it’s just not working.

 A  version of this article appeared in Scotland’s national newspaper The Scotsman