Why unemployment is good for us

Been to the shops lately? Noticed the posters in windows asking…no…pleading for staff? Shops and businesses everywhere are struggling to find staff either skilled or unskilled to fill vacancies.

It seems those days of placing an advertisement for staff, and being hit with 30 applications are well and truly over. Being hit with one application would be fantastic. Two would be a dream! More businesses are resorting to the trusty answering system or family members to field calls due to lack of reception staff. My local Subway was closed for two nights in a row last week due to lack of staff. When food chains close, you know there’s a problem.

Yet what does our super-low unemployment rate do for us as individuals, and more importantly, for society in general? The no-brainer says that we’ve all got money and are therefore ‘better off’ than generations before. We’ve got a little disposable cash, and even though we don’t like rising interest rates or falling house prices, we can at least work six jobs to cover whatever financial stress we find ourselves in. If we only had 72-hour days to work in these six jobs we’d be fine.

The not so obvious answer is that super-low unemployment creates a distinct decrease in service and product quality that we’re only just starting to see. As businesses, in their panic to get staff, employ people who either aren’t suitable or aren’t skilled, we find that whatever level of satisfaction we had experienced as a consumer is being eroded.

Staff competence is an odd term. While mostly it means the ability of a staff member to do their duties as expected, in Australia we’re accustomed to a little more than just ‘adequacy’. The notion of ‘caring’ about the customer, and going ‘beyond expectations’ has long been accepted and valued. Good staff don’t just do their job, they are an integral part of the business that assists in its growth and development. Adequate staff say, “Have a nice day” or “Enjoy” because that’s the template they’ve been fed and they don’t question it. Great staff say, “Enjoy your golf game on the weekend John” because they take the extra step of knowing the customer and, shudder the thought, remembering their name.

Yet why should any staff member push beyond the realms of ‘adequacy’ when they know full well there’s not hundreds of potential replacements scratching at the manager’s door? What makes anyone be and do the best they can?

The answer lies in human evolution and the theories of Charles Darwin. If we as human organisms are forced to compete for any of the resources we value, we’ll go out of our way to do our best. Valued resources could be food, shelter, sexual partners, credibility, money or a squillion other things. If we on the other hand, have no competition for these valued resources, we don’t bother to do our best, or find creative ways of attaining them.

The sportsperson who’s told before a match that they’re guaranteed of winning due to their competition’s failed drug test will seldom do their best. Even the African lion, when fed a regular and plentiful diet of prepared food, will lose the incentive and ability to hunt creatively. Why bother?

Professor Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi from Chicago University, in his research into how and why humans work, found scarcity or the lack of guarantee one of the conditions of ‘flow’ and work enjoyment. We’re more likely to work well at a job that challenges us and makes us do our best. The possibility we may lose our job, is one challenge that drives us.

Psychologically, there’s another interesting implication. As competition for a resource decreases, the value of the resource diminishes. It’s a fact known by biologists and fashion designers alike…we don’t value what we don’t strive for. A job that’s easily won is a job less valued. A product no one else wants, or is plentiful is a product not worth shopping for.

In order to avoid a society made up of ‘adequate’ or mediocre service, products and modes of thinking, a degree of scarcity is essential. While no-one wants to return to the unemployment levels of the mid 90’s when unemployment hit 8.5%, an unemployment level that creates a clever country, rather than an adequate one, is unpalatable yet important. While not everyone will agree, surely having a ‘great’ day, is better than having a nice one.

One thought on “Why unemployment is good for us”

  1. Dear Phil,

    I have noted the same…many, Many “Please work here” signs – hand written and sellotaped to the wall in fast food outlets! (although I have not patroned Subway, and admire your openess in this respect).

    I think this method of advertising is meant to be inviting to the ‘Youth of today’. It implies that the employer will be lasse-fairre – or ‘cool’ (wiser folk will readily identify the employer as one who has no interest in attracting talent and subsequently will not be prepared to invest dollars in providing a good service for the customer). I feel this employer attitude is a result of the Parato principle – pay 20% and keep 80%.

    I am also intrigued that you have not thanked our retired ex-treasurer for his contribution to improve the supply and demand principle by providing hefty birth payments – and furthermore encouraging households to recieve three of these payments! I am interested in your opinion of the impact of this financial reward on the population and the impact of the escalating ‘Principle of least effort’ on the in the workplace of today.

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