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posted: 11/24/2012 7:23 AM

The neglected economics of trying to find a job you enjoy

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By Matthew Yglesias, Slate

WASHINGTON -- Everyone knows that money aside, it's better to have a job you love than a job you hate. Some of that is the nature of the task. I think the issues I cover are really interesting, but lots of people aren't interested in them and would find it extremely tedious to write about them all day. And some of it is c-oworkers. Most people spend a lot of time at their place of work and a lot of time interacting with your co-workers. Working alongside people whose company you enjoy is much better than working alongside people you hate.

And yet even though everyone knows these things, the nonmonetary aspects of job quality are an incredibly neglected topic in economics.

I was reminded of this the other day when I caught up with an old friend who's a recently minted economics Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and whose job-market paper "Match Quality with Unpriced Amenities" is precisely on this subject. "Typically, monetary productivity is assumed to be the sole determinant of the worker-firm match," even though that clearly isn't the case, he writes. The work of the paper is to try to build a tractable structural search model that "allows job match quality to depend additionally on unpriced job amenities" (i.e., people try to find jobs they like) and "permitting match quality estimation that is robust to both unobserved amenities and selection." One takeaway from the paper is that traditional estimates of deadweight loss from wage taxation are producing overestimates, and that's increasingly the case as unpriced amenities become more important.

This subject also strikes me as relevant to the conversation around productivity growth. We have a stylized fact whereby as a society gets richer, its citizens should be expected to consume more leisure at the margin. And indeed we see that over time hours worked has tended to fall in rich countries.

In that case what you see is that wages (how much do you earn per hour) rise faster than incomes (how much do you earn per year) because higher wages in part induce less work. But that's driven by a very simplistic picture of the economy, where you're either working on the assembly line (earning wages) or at home watching TV (enjoying leisure). Another thing people can do is deliberately earn lower wages in order to obtain better job amenities. I was reading the other day about Pecan Lodge in Dallas: Newcomer of the Year at the 2012 Texas Monthly BBQ Festival. Its founders used to be consultants with Accenture, but they decided they'd rather quit and smoke meat.

That's really the same kind of leisure/income tradeoff as you see if workers cut back their hours, but it'll show up differently in national statistics. Instead of wages and productivity rising while income stays flat and hours fall, you'll see hours stay flat while wages and productivity fall. Phlogiston economics will say that Pecan Lodge is an example of technological innovation slowing down since it reduces total factor productivity, when it's really just an example of people taking advantage of the fact that America is a wealthy society to try to improve their unpriced job amenities.

• Matthew Yglesias (mattyglesias) is Slate's business and economics correspondent. Before joining the magazine he worked for ThinkProgress, the Atlantic, TPM Media and the American Prospect. His most recent book is "The Rent Is Too Damn High."

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