Précarité is the Price You Must Pay

One of the things I’ve learned in my study of the happiness literature is that people don’t take enough risks. The evidence seems to indicate that many people would be happier if they quit their job and either went into business for themselves, or found a new job that better matched their individual strengths—even if it is a job that pays significantly less. (You can take a quiz here, at psychologist Martin Seligman’s website, to find out what your signature strengths are.)

Because we are so risk-averse—so wary of experiencing losses—and because we tend to predict that the downside of a risky decision will be bigger than it actually will be, doing what is most likely to make us happy—taking the periodic entrepreneurial gamble—requires a kind of bravery. But that’s just the personal side of the matter. Culturally, we need a climate of opinion that values risk and rewards initiative with respect and praise, reinforcing and encouraging personal courage. Institutionally, we need a flexible labor market that allows us to easily enter and exit new jobs in search of a good match for our interests and strengths, and a system of laws that does not make it difficult and expensive for people to start their own businesses.

This interesting article from Sunday’s Boston Globe about Brett Zaccardi, who dropped out of college to start his own “alternative media and communications agency,” makes this point well, even drawing on psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s work on predicting our future feelings:

When it comes to career schemes, we do not have accurate imaginations about what life will be like for us in different situations, says Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology and author of ”Stumbling on Happiness.” Our most accurate information about what will make us happy comes from snooping on other people to see if they are happy. And the best way to watch other people is to be in a variety of offices. Gilbert calls the informal process of judging other peoples’ happiness ”surrogation.” He says ”surrogation is the best way to predict if we’ll be happy. Observe how happy people are in different situations.”

So what do you need to know before you decide? Figure out what was bad about the jobs you’ve had so you don’t duplicate the problem. Then just start testing the waters – put a toe in the current to see how it feels. Then take a leap, and if you don’t like where you land, reframe your landing pad as just a steppingstone. And put your foot in the water again.

”We should have more trust in our own resilience and less confidence in our predictions about how we’ll feel,” Gilbert says. ”We should be a bit more humble and a bit more brave.”

Clearly, this kind of serial toe dipping and steppingstone strolling requires an institutional climate where labor market entry and exit is easy, and where starting a new business is not a huge hassle. The predictable consequence of this kind of openness and dynamism will be a bit of volatility in employment and earnings, but if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.

Now, compare this absolutely gob smacking exchange between writer James Traub and Ségolène Royal in Traub’s NYT Magazine profile of the French politician (via Virginia Postrel):

In fact, Royal seems innocent of any taint of economic liberalism. She regards Villepin’s peremptory imposition of the new law as a sign of a systematic failure to listen to ordinary people; but she does not view the national suspicion of market forces as a comparable source of paralysis. I was surprised, I said during our interview, that someone whose entire life constituted a triumph over adversity would join the campaign to insure against précarité….Royal countered my observation with a familiar refrain: “The problem is that everybody isn’t subject to insecurity. Do you see businessmen being fired for incompetence? The young see politicians, who also have a stable and secure job, being civil servants, lecturing others on insecurity. So the young graduate will say, ‘In the name of what am I going to sign an insecure contract?’ “

Then the conversation took an odd turn. Royal asked me, with the air of someone pulling out a trump card, “Are you in an insecure situation?” Actually, I explained, as a contract writer for this magazine, I have little security.

Royal wasn’t going to be put off the scent that easily. “Yes, but how many years does your contract last?”

“I sign a new one every year.”

Now she was frankly incredulous. “You could be fired every year?” For all her own experience, Royal apparently viewed précarité as a kind of socioeconomic stigma rather than the price you might choose to pay for freedom. Or maybe you could say that for her, as for the left generally–and not only in France–market liberalism and globalization have the status merely of fact, which is categorically inferior to a right. This is no less so if the fact appears to obviate the right. “The global economy shouldn’t be supported by wage earners,” Royal insisted. “They have to be able to build a future, like any human being.”

This is amazing in part because many of us have never had anything but an “at-will” contract, according to which we can be fired any minute. And we should consider ourselves lucky. Societies obsessed with abolishing précarité—the so-called precariousness of dynamic markets—tend to implement rules that lock people into the first career track they set foot in, or lock people (immigrants especially) out of the labor market altogether. Regulatory insulation against employment and wage instability does provide a kind of stability—just not the kind that makes for satisfied lives. You get, on the one hand, stable sub-optimal matches between individual strengths and jobs, since it is difficult under those conditions to dip your toes in lots of different currents. In which case, careers are less likely to be seen as “callings” and work is less likely to be experienced as meaningful and intrinsically satisfying (causing demand for things like six hour work days and six weeks of vacation to go up.) On the other hand, you get stable levels of high unemployment. Studies show that long-term unemployment delivers a big hit to happiness only slightly less toxic than divorce. As it turns out, a little précarité is not simply, as Traub writes “the price you must choose to pay for freedom,” but the price you must pay for happiness.