EARLY IN MY public service career, my supervisor told me that as a result of a recent promotion, her hourly income had actually decreased. In her previous job was an Executive Level 1 public servant she worked about 38 hours a week and earned enough to be quite comfortable. She was now working 50 hours a week as an Executive Level 2 and earning more, but not enough more to compensate for the increase in hours. I have since heard similar stories a number of times from different people in the public service and private enterprise, and it does appear that there is a particular level (usually around middle management) where the increase in hours expected by the employer does not offset the increase in salary.
In her book The Work/Life Collision, Barbara Pocock writes that the weekly hours of full time employees increased from 38.2 hours per week in 1982 to 41.3 hours in 2001. These averages hide some of the more extreme cases: the proportion of employees working more than 45 hours per week increased from 18 per cent in 1985 to 26 per cent in 2001, for example, with growth especially strong among those working 50 hours or more.
So have these additional hours and (it’s to be hoped) income meant we are happier? Or is there a trade off between happiness, working hours and income?
In a recent report in the AMP.NATSEM Income and Wealth series, The Pursuit of Happiness, Rebecca Cassells, Cathy Gong and Marcia Keegan looked at life satisfaction in Australia. One of their main conclusions is that there are indeed links between money and happiness, but happiness wasn’t all about money. In fact, those with the highest life satisfaction score (10) were earning slightly less on average than those who registered a life satisfaction score between 6 and 9. Good health, relationships, age and home ownership were also associated with happiness.
Further, those with longer working hours experienced a lower level of overall life satisfaction and satisfaction with their job. The report also found that workers are least satisfied with their working hours and the pay they receive, and most satisfied with their job security and work flexibility.
Working longer hours obviously means a lot less free time. This report found that while only 1 per cent of people were dissatisfied with life overall, 11 per cent were dissatisfied with the amount of free time they have. Previous research by NATSEM had found 53 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men in Australian capital cities felt pressed for time. This is probably linked to the longer hours that we are working.
So if higher pay and longer hours are not necessarily making us happier, what should we be doing about it? Barbara Pokock concludes that there is an argument “for a deeper and a more deliberate community conversation about our values, actions and options in a world that is increasingly dominated by paid work and where we use money to buy all kinds of goods and care, and sometimes, even – we hope – love.”
And what will make us happier? The authors of the AMP.NATSEM report, with tongues firmly in cheek, suggest several things: “Get a job that pays well, but not too well. Buy a nice house, but don’t spend too much on a big TV, furniture or car. Put extra money into your super and open a savings account. Cut up your credit card and pay bills on time. When you start to feel pretty pleased with your life, but still not totally satisfied, don’t buy an investment property. Focus on reducing your debt, then book yourself a nice holiday!” •
Robert Tanton is Principal Research Fellow at the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM)
Photo: Andrew Jeffrey