The TGIF problem

Americans’ reluctance to postpone retirement says something about their attitudes toward their work.

Raising the retirement age to help balance out the finances of the Social Security system is a popular idea among people who discuss policy professionally and recreationally, but a thoroughly unpopular idea in the country at large. Geoff Garin and Kevin Drum are undoubtely right: a major reason is that we policy wonks and chatterers mostly have jobs we like doing, and wouldn’t mind doing a few more years, while most folks have jobs they’d really rather not do.

That’s a problem for the Republican right’s Social Security wrecking crew, of course, which doesn’t make me unhappy at all. What does make me unhappy is that, in what is by some measures the richest nation in the history of the planet, most people don’t really enjoy the activity that occupies about a third of their waking hours.

One of my favorite Citigroup Zen billboard slogans is “Make sure your life work isn’t work.” Looks to me as if we’re doing rather badly on that score. Let’s call that the “TGIF problem.”

If things changed so that, on average, people made somewhat less money at work they enjoyed somewhat more, our measured GDP would go down, but our national well-being might well go up.

Solving the TGIF problem would, of course, leave unsolved another problem: according to the hedonics studies, a large proportion of people also don’t much enjoy their leisure, and spend it watching television programs they don’t much enjoy. But one problem at a time.

Footnote: In universities, finding office space for the emeriti — retired professors — is a problem administrators worry about. The assumption, frequently valid, is that professors like professing, and that even if they’ve decided to stop getting paid for it they still want to write and, sometimes, teach. My friend Jack Hirshleifer, who went emeritus before I got to UCLA and is choughty-cough years old, just told me happily that he’d just gotten the manuscript of a new paper on sexual selection as a signalling process out to a journal and the proofs of the next edition of Price Theory and Applications off to the publisher. I’m sure there are folks at UCLA and Harvard counting the years until retirement, but they don’t talk about it out loud.

Part of the difference, no doubt, is that a professor can stop having assigned responsibilities and a schedule while remaining a productive worker. Most jobs aren’t structured that way. But the larger difference is that, other than grading and committee meetings, the day-to-day work of professoring is pretty intrinsically rewarding. As Bob Dole said about being a Congressman, “Indoor work, and no heavy lifting.”

No, we can’t make all jobs like that; someone has to do the heavy lifting or the heavy things won’t get lifted. But I doubt that most jobs need to be as unpleasant as the retirement statistics suggest they are.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: