In this chapter we have seen that since 2004, many employed people have seen the organisations that they work for encounter financial difficulties and witnessed colleagues being made redundant or failing to have their contracts renewed. Feelings of job insecurity have become more widespread, with women, in particular, feeling more vulnerable than they did before the start of the economic crisis.
Perceptions of job quality have shifted since before the recession among both men and women in work. Demands in the workplace have increased somewhat - workers have become more likely to feel that they have to work "very hard" and more likely to report some types of unsocial working hours. Effort-reward imbalance theory argues that workers can often cope with high demands like this, provided their rewards are commensurate. But we have found that workplace rewards have decreased: people report finding that their work has become less interesting, that it has less variety, and that they have experienced reductions in pay. One thing that has remained stable overall is the level of support provided by colleagues - although it is possible this could reflect a solidarity born of shared insecurity in some of Britain's recession-hit workplaces.
These trends cannot be good news for families. As well as reductions in pay and in average number of paid working hours, and increases in unsocial work hours, between 2004 and 2010 there have also been small but significant increases in people saying that they worry about work-related problems when they are not working. We have observed a drop in the proportion of workers of both sexes who regard men as priority breadwinners, yet found no accompanying drop, at least among women, in the proportion who believe that a woman should be prepared to cut down on paid work for the sake of her family. One interpretation of this is that the dual burden on women - as both economic providers and caregivers -
may have intensified.
This presents us with a conundrum. Many of the factors that we know are associated with subjective wellbeing - like job security and managing financially - have deteriorated, yet levels of self-reported life satisfaction and happiness have remained buoyant. Should this surprise us? In Iceland, Gudmundsdottir (2011) uncovered a comparable paradox when she found that the self-reported happiness of people in her country remained pretty much unchanged during its period of extreme economic crisis. American data sources paint a similar picture (for example, Blanchflower and Oswald, 2002). Our findings likewise show that self-reported happiness and life satisfaction have remained remarkably stable throughout both good and bad economic times. Explanations for this phenomenon include a view that individuals have a wellbeing 'set point' that they readily revert to after periods of crisis. However, continuing unemployment is a notable exception to this, being one of the few experiences found to be capable of shifting the 'set point' within an individual for the worse (Lucas et al., 2004). As evidenced by the survey data reported in this chapter, such a 'set point' seems to exist at a societal level as well as at an individual one.
Another lesson we can draw from the findings in this chapter is that the use of satisfaction and subjective wellbeing indicators to evaluate the social impact of a changing economy carries risks. Used in isolation, such measures may be liable to underestimate the real impact of recession on the quality of people's day-to-day lives. The British government's plans to increase the use of subjective wellbeing measures in policy and programme evaluation, as well as for monitoring trends in social progress, have been widely welcomed. But these measures may need to be placed alongside ones that also more directly probe people's specific experiences.
How satisfied people say they are will depend not only on the objective quality of what they are being asked to assess, but also on what their expectations are. In times of economic crisis workers may expect job loss, and so be satisfied with continued employment. In times of economic boom, they may expect promotion and advancement, and be more likely to report dissatisfaction. We should not, therefore, be surprised that reported job satisfaction has increased since before the recession, even though some aspects of job quality have deteriorated. It is important not to assume that high levels of job satisfaction necessarily mean that all is well in the workplace: they might reflect, in part, low expectations.
- Download chapter
- British Social Attitudes and European Social Survey analysis excludes Northern Ireland, whereas OECD data are based on the whole UK. Various terms are used in this chapter to refer to people in paid work (for example, "workers", "people in paid work", and "employed people"). They all denote everyone who is either an employee or is self-employed, who usually works 10 hours or more a week, and who considers work to be their main activity.
- Part-time work was defined as working less than 35 hours per week.
- Bases for Table 6.5 are as follows:
- The fourth Work-Life Balance Employee Survey was conducted by NatCen Social Research for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
- This includes people who say they "always", "often", "sometimes" or "hardly ever" do this, but excludes those who say they "never" do.
- Related links