Are we unhappy at work or has work lost its value?

06.09.2023 3 min
Read my column published in "L'Opinion" the 8th of June

An increasing number of news stories are focusing on young people who have decided to stop working and simply scrape by, saying that minimum social security benefits are enough for them. As if it were normal to count on those who work to choose not to work. This signals a shift in how young adults think about work.

People point to sociological surveys to show that French companies are home to a quasi-pathological malaise at work, which would explain the refusal of the majority to postpone the retirement age.

Something appears to have broken between French people and their work, the latter having become a source of dissatisfaction and even psychological and physical disorders.

The urgency, then, is to address this distinctively French phenomenon of unhappiness at work, stemming from the poor organisation of companies and the insufficiently regulated “exploitation” of employees.

Naturally, job satisfaction depends on the particular situation of each company, and even more specifically on the company department and line managers. But numerous French companies are working to improve their management, identify what good management entails, and develop best practices.

What if the problem is not about this widespread sense of unhappiness at work? What if this new and oft-repeated discourse hides something else? A number of surveys and polls show that many employees trust their company and have struck a good work-life balance. More than a sense of malaise at work, perhaps the problem is about the erosion of the value of work itself? And this goes beyond the crucial improvements to be made regarding arduous or highly repetitive work and, notably in public hospitals and schools, cases of growing pauperisation and a lack of recognition of the importance of the work of these professionals.

Is it not the case in France over the last 40 years that the switch to a 35-hour week, the introduction of a fifth week of paid holidays and the decrease of the retirement age to 60, regardless of the obvious individual benefits and the justice of such measures, have undermined the essential value of work, both individually and collectively? Or do some people now see work as pointless, or perhaps as a necessary evil, but one that needs to be reduced to a minimum?

Our welfare society – an invaluable collective asset that needs to be safeguarded – has been considerably corrupted by requiring too few obligations for ever extended benefits.

During the Popular Front, for example, the unemployed were required to accomplish tasks of general interest in exchange for subsidies.

And financially, as well as for the social contract to remain widely acceptable, we are no longer in a position to grant more and more benefits; instead we are obliged to roll out revolutionary reforms, as in the Nordic countries since the early 1990s and in Germany since the early 2000s. This shift consists in putting a stop to the unquestioned provision of aid by introducing clear requirements and conditions for benefits, the aim being to save the country from economic and financial collapse and to preserve the social pact allowing a high level of social protection, as the Nordic countries did in the 1990s.

Our society as a majority is not suffering from a widespread malaise at work caused by businesses themselves; it is prey to a growing disaffection for work combined with the rise of unbridled individualism adroitly dressed in discourses of solidarity, alternative approaches to labour, and even the rejection of capitalism. Benevolence – a fine and increasingly advocated value – can be conceived only if accompanied by a parallel and equally strong sense of requirement. Failing this, under the pretext of understanding and explaining everything, benevolence allows anything and everything. This could destroy the relationships between benefits and obligations that form the basis of the social contract and harmonious co-existence. What we need, then, is benevolence with requirements, healthy demands on oneself and others, in families, work and school. This sense of requirement is free of any connotation of intransigence.

Constantly supported and protected while giving nothing in exchange, too many people have lost sight of the relationship between, on one hand, the right to income, health and a pension and, on the other, work.

If the value of work is not restored as soon as possible, a major economic, financial and social crisis may occur. We need to understand that the only source of wealth is work. And that the high standard of living and social protection enjoyed in France relative to other countries can only be defended in the short to medium term by the work of the French themselves.

Work is a source of liberation and socialisation rather than alienation. Socialisation, social ties, and the act of forging one’s place in the world all constitute a key social need and are most often made possible by work. Work enables shared projects to be achieved. It gives meaning. It organises social life. Companies and company departments need to constantly strive towards the best way of working and empowering individuals in their work and that of their teams, without idealising reality but also without systematically blackening it ideologically. We must not forget that work serves to collectively safeguard – and to improve – the standard of living and social protection of the entire population.

Professor of financial macroeconomics and monetary policy at HEC