This discussion at the RSA is well worth a listen, for anyone interested in, well, having a good life – but more specifically, it’s about the idea David Cameron seems to have embraced, that government should be focussed on the well-being and “happiness” of its citizens, not just in growing GDP: Richard Layard with Andrew Marr at RSA – happiness.
Hard to argue with the basic point, I feel: increasing wealth works its magic for sure, but only on the less well-off. Once you reach a certain level – and it’s not very high up the income scale – further increases do not make you any more fulfilled or happy. Watching Series One of Mad Men on DVD at the moment, the malaise at the heart of modern society is on my mind. But Mad Men and Lord Layard‘s work are part of a wider phenomenon that has picked up a head of steam in the last five to ten years, pre-dating the crash but reinforced by it: that we in the West have veered off track and are no longer living lives that work for us as individuals, for our families, or wider society.
This reappraisal of where we are is not just a UK phenomenon, but it is strong here and it is not going away. To me it is a hugely interesting part of being alive here now in 2011. I do believe we are gradually going through a major shift in how we live and work. It’s not a shift in values – I think they have already shifted – it’s bringing our actual behaviour up to speed with what we have already decided needs to happen. Businesses and government have been wrestling with this for years, but it’s only just started.
It seems to me this shift was already happening when I entered the workforce in the mid-90s. The City, where I then worked, was full of these guys who had made their fortunes and were investing now part-time, almost as a hobby. OK, it was rich guys who could afford not to work, but it interested me that so many had chosen to step away. They had developed a wider perspective on life: self-actualisation through career alone was out of the window.
More modestly there were the people “downshifting”: realising they’d be happier not being a wage-slave and making do with less so they could have more time with the family and things they loved. Meanwhile, most of us worker ants were working ever harder and longer hours and wondering when we’d be able to break out of it somehow, either by moving up or shifting across. I made my own move out of City law into qual research – with a 50 per cent pay cut – in 1998. I then worked harder than I did as a lawyer for a fraction of the pay for the next 12 years. But loving my researcher life, I’ve always felt it was the best thing I ever did (marriage and child aside!).
As someone who, at one point, looked ahead to my future career with dread and trepidation, I find it a wonderful thing that more and more of us are jumping out of that mindset and demanding something better for ourselves. This is all about thinking about happiness and our real end goals, rather than just schlumping into a career track. Even a flat economy will not hold back this huge social force from continuing to changing businesses and government. This isn’t going away.