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The changing world of work


“MONEY often costs too much,” quipped Ralph Waldo Emerson. But a new study suggests that since 1950, the price of buying it with labour in America has fallen. Greg Kaplan of the University of Chicago and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago have linked measures of how Americans today feel about various jobs to changes in employment.

Both men and women are less likely to be farmers, for example, now than in 1950, and more likely to be in management. Women are less likely to be secretaries, and men more likely to be in service-sector jobs. Assuming that people in 1950 felt the same way about particular jobs as people do now, workers today are less sad, less tired and in less pain.

But changes in other measures of well-being, and a separate analysis of men and women, are less uniformly positive (see chart). The economists find that modern employment patterns probably mean that today’s workers are more stressed. And although the jobs women have moved into are ones they associate with more happiness and a greater sense of meaning, the opposite holds for men. Some of this is because women and men seem to view similar jobs differently. Both have moved away from working as a “machine operator, assembler or inspector”, which is associated with happiness below the average for women, but above for men.

The study has limitations. Differences between the sexes could be concealed if, within a category, they are doing different work. Attitudes to jobs might depend on status, pay (in absolute or relative terms) or the kind of people who do them, all of which could have changed over time.

It also leaves a puzzle. Research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Michigan has found that women in the 1970s reported being happier than men and that the gap has since narrowed. If the assumptions in both studies are right, well-being away from work could be worsening for women relative to men. Worrying stuff.

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