Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Understanding the resistance to change

Tonight’s post provides  a few observations on current economic news. I am not giving links where the source article is behind the firewall.

At the moment there is a lot in the Australian financial press about the need for and resistance to economic reform among Australians. If my own reactions are any measure, I fail to see why there should be surprise at people’s resistant to economic change. Now don’t get me wrong, I happen to agree that Australia does need to improve productivity for example, but the reform debate is almost totally contextual, and that is where it fails.

To begin with a semantic point, “reform” simply means to reshape or change. It does not mean change in a positive direction, although the way the word is used and abused often carries that loading. Most if not all change brings winners and losers. When, as in my case, change seems to have damage the things that I care most about, then I become change resistant. Who will benefit from this change, I ask? Who will lose? When the majority of the population comes to feel that they belong in the loser class, necessary change becomes almost impossible.

In a piece in today’s Australian Financial Review, Rachel Nickless reported on the results of a  survey of Australian graduates carried out by Universum. Now Universum classifies itself as “the employee branding firm”. Chaps, you have something to learn. As often happens, I tried to check the story against source. This is the Universum web site summary. It gives damn all information, although no doubt the company thinks it pretty! Back to Rachel.

According to Rachel, Universum found that among 8,516 final year students, people and culture contributed most to employer attractiveness. When asked about their career gaols, work like balance came first (61 per cent) followed by job security (50 per cent) and then a feeling that I am serving a greater good ( 43 per cent). At the same time, students still had inflated salary expectations.

These result are broadly consistent with my own experiences. They are part of the problem faced by those mounting a case for economic change on the grounds that this will make the country wealthier or, at least, more economically self-sustaining. This doesn’t garb as an objective, while students are well ware of job insecurity.

In another short piece in the same paper, Andrew Podger looked at the McClure report into the Australian welfare system.  Beyond noting that data buried in Appendix G  showed that the proportion of working age Australians receiving income support had declined from 25 per cent in 1996 to 18 per cent today. He also commented that Australia had the most targeted welfare system in the world.

I don’t know about that. I do know that our increasingly less generous and more targeted welfare system has actually become a cause of welfare dependence. In more generous days, you could move through the system from dependence to independence. That’s what many did. Today, tight targeting has created a situation where the transition financial costs of improving oneself have become very great. The obvious answer is to further increase restrictions and penalties. You could do a lot more with some relaxation in rules at a not especially great net cost.

I am running out of time tonight, so I want to return to my main theme. I said that the reform debate was almost totally contextual. By that I mean simply that it it is dominated by particular thought constructs and broader ideological arguments on the part of right and left. These do not address the causes of resistance to change. They are simply obiter dicta, things said in passing that appear to provide justification.                 


Winton Bates said...

Sorry Jim, I don't understand the point you are making from the survey of graduates. I guess they do not see a huge problem in getting jobs that will give them work-life balance etc. (By the way, there has to be something seriously wrong with the concept of work-life balance. When was it that work ceased to be part of life? We don't talk about sleep-life balance, or leisure-life balance.)

Perhaps young people think that their political leaders will resolve the problem, so they don't have to feel insecure. They probably know about the high unemployment among young people like themselves in Spain and Greece, but think that our government will save them from such a fate. With a bit of luck they might be right.

Evan said...

Who else loses 60% of each dollar earned? If this was done to business it would be greeted with howls of outrage.

And the interaction between the dole and the pension is horrendous (I speak of that which I know).

As to work life balance: what is it that goes into the balance against life (and what does this say of our view of work!)?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think I agree with Winton (in that I also don't understand the connection you are making)

And you quote Universum as "an employee branding firm" (whatever that means) when I think they faff on about "employer branding" - whatever that means?

Anyway, if you need a means of categorising "young people" here's a recent Economist article:

- which seems to make the point that the world is round. And round again.

But apart from that, I mostly of course agree with whatever it was you were attempting to say :)


Winton Bates said...

Evan, what goes into the balance against life is death. If you like you can talk about death-life balance or life expectancy.

Winton Bates said...

A further thought. Don't you think Tony Abott's "earn or learn" slogan might a bit wimpish by comparison with the the slogan of St Paul (and Lenin) to the effect that if you don't wok you don't eat.

Jim Belshaw said...

Let me clarify a few things.

The topic of work-life balance first came into my ken in the early 1990s, especially among women. It was part of a broader change process where people started saying we don't want to work harder, we don't want to achieve more, we don't want to improve all the time. Work is important, but it is a means to an end.

With young graduates, the salary signal shows that they still have have unreal expectations about the value of a degree. However, the reality is that they know that the world is insecure, that they may struggle to get a job of any type. They have therefore redefined what they consider to be important.

The difficulty for a reform agenda of the type often now presented is that people have opted out. They challenge the premises.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, just a very brief comment on that economist piece. I have only skimmed it quickly.

The definition of what constitutes conservative behaviour has shifted. I guess it shifts all the time.

I can only speak from practical experience of the Oz young and then in particular groups. They are different. They support certain things that would once have been socially radical, that's now the status quo, but have become more conservative on other things.

In Australia, one of the best clues comes from public opinion polls and voting patterns. The popular causes of their parents, feminism is an example, seem less important because gains made have been internalised. Their parents examples, divorce is a case in point flowing from the 1970s, have made them more cautious about relationships.

The polling data is the only really objective measure we have. On that, if I were Mr Abbott, I would be very concerned. Unless the votes really shift, the inexorable forces of demographic change mean that the coalition faces an electoral cliff.

Evan said...

Work and life expectancy would be a good discussion Winton.

The young people I talk to are in line with the poll data. And Green consciousness is pretty pervasive. Which goes with a caution and even conservatism in relationships (eg marriage equality rather than doing an alternative to marriage) - one term for this (British I think) is 'young fogeys'.

I should say that I find young people very impressive. Far more mature and engaged than my generation at the same age.