A long weekend to consider the balance of pay and leisure

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The Independent Online

Holidays or work? This Easter weekend is the most intensive holiday of our year in the sense that more people travel somewhere in a short space of time: more people going through the airports, travelling on the trains or stuck in jams on the roads. It is fitting that this great Christian festival should be a time for getting away from work, but it also raises questions about how we make choices between pay and leisure.

Holidays or work? This Easter weekend is the most intensive holiday of our year in the sense that more people travel somewhere in a short space of time: more people going through the airports, travelling on the trains or stuck in jams on the roads. It is fitting that this great Christian festival should be a time for getting away from work, but it also raises questions about how we make choices between pay and leisure.

Why is it, for example, that some people find themselves working harder and harder while others find themselves in enforced leisure? Why are certain skills, such as public relations, in such extraordinary demand in the economy? And why are other skills that you would imagine are equally needed, such as those of university lecturers, either commanding very low wages or maybe not needed at all.

The news of this week illustrates the demand side very well. There has been a sudden surge in earnings, which are now rising at 6 per cent a year. But it is uneven both geographically and professionally. Some firms are even offering bounties to their staff for finding employees. I heard last week of one big public relations firm paying pounds 1,000 to any staff member who can recruit another. But while unemployment is falling and is now only 4 per cent on the old measure, even that is high by the standards of the 1950s and early 1960s. Despite all the steps that have been taken to make the labour market function better, even a boom does not suck all the jobless into work.

In the US the bounty element is even more pronounced. Investment banks are losing people to internet operations, and finding that to keep them they have to pay hundreds of thousand dollars for junior employees and of course millions for the top ones. These salaries are the inevitable market response to a scarcity of talent but they may, in the short term at least, make the problem even worse. The 45-year-olds who might have been persuaded to stay on a bit longer can retire - or fund their own new business ventures.

Meanwhile many people feel they are working too hard. Rationally people ought to be able to make a choice between pay and hours but in practice it is very hard for many to do so. The development of global markets and new communications technologies make it both possible and necessary for many professionals to work longer hours. The fact that the UK straddles the time zones between Asia and America may give London an advantage over Tokyo and New York but it sure makes for a long working day.

So what does the economist say about this imbalance between both work and leisure and the different rewards for different types of work? The different rewards are easier to explain. Part of the answer is that rapid change in the economy has created a strong demand for skills that are relatively rare. Demand will create supply, but with a time lag, and while more people are developing, for example, IT skills, for a few years more these will command a premium.

OK, the sceptic would say, but what about public relations skills. Surely these are not difficult to acquire, compared, say, with becoming a music teacher? The answer to that is while one apparently requires only months of training while the other requires many years, the former is actually rarer. Not only is it very difficult to be a successful spin doctor, it takes years of experience, not months. And one of the side effects of changes in the way society is organised is that there is an enormous demand for their services.

Why does the market not even this out better? Part of the answer is that it takes time. The labour force of a country turns over only every 40 years, and we are not very good at "retro-fitting" with new skills. But I suggest part of the answer lies simply in bad information. Our school children are not taught much about life skills: the extent to which their lives will be shaped by decisions they take very early on. So gates are closed too early. Young people also are often misinformed. Many highly- paid jobs are often portrayed in movies as unattractive: investment bankers and entrepreneurs are rarely the heroes of Hollywood, though oddly enough both criminals and lawyers often are.

The choice between leisure and work is harder to explain. I suspect people are often not wholly frank about their motives for choosing work over leisure. There is some evidence in the US that people spend longer in offices than they need to because their office is a nicer place than their home: there is order, calm, a community of like-minded people, free coffee, etc. Home is chores.

People also like to feel important, often defining themselves by the company they work for and their status within it. Complaining about the hours they say they need to put in is actually saying: "look how important I am".

Still, employers could do a great deal to cope with their staffing problems by applying the same sort of rigour to their office activities that they require of their manufacturing processes. They could create a better quality of performance, plus greater leisure for their people, if they were to examine how staff actually spend their time. Need meetings take as long as they do? Need there be as many meetings? Are there more efficient ways of gathering information?

As we head into the Easter weekend, we could use a moment of calm to think about the way we work, the choices we make - and whether next week when we come back we could find ways of getting the balance between the different aspects of out a bit better.

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