What makes IT workers happy?

comment Many IT managers may have pragmatically accepted policies like outsourcing, there are good grounds for doubting that they are always in the best interests of society--and the IT worker.

comment I want to return to a question that affects us all. Technology helps to change our society, but what is it that makes us happy?

In a previous article, I doubted that economic growth alone was enough. A new report by the International Labour Office adds strong support to this doubt.

Consistently with other studies, the ILO report says life satisfaction surveys show rising income is not enough on its own. The main determinant of national happiness, according to the report, is the extent of income security, measured in terms of income protection and a low degree of income inequality.

An interesting subsidiary finding is that there is no simple relationship between happiness and level of skill. In fact, the contrary often applies, perhaps because many people with a high skill level have jobs that fail to make use of their education and competencies. Anecdotally, this is certainly the case for some people with IT skills, who have been marginalised for a variety of reasons including ageism.

To investigate economic security further, the ILO has developed an index and calculated it for over 90 countries. The results show interesting anomalies. While South Asia has about seven percent of the world's income, it has about 14 percent of the world's economic security. And the US, despite its huge wealth, comes in at 25 on the economic security index.

So while IT managers may have pragmatically accepted policies such as outsourcing, call centres and flexible workforces, there are good grounds for doubting that they are always in the best interests of society. When we follow the US example rather than the European, we may well be headed in the wrong direction, if what we want is happiness.

For, although our government urges the merits of a flexible workforce and privatisation, the UK is only fifteenth in the economic security table -- with almost all of Europe ahead of us and the US well behind. To achieve happiness, a country whose economy is in relative decline needs to improve security rather than attempt economic growth through the introduction of insecurity.

Going deeper into the analysis, it turns out that since 1980 there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of economic shocks. In most countries, per capita economic growth rates have declined while variability has increased. This implies greater economic insecurity, contrary to predictions made by those pushing for rapid economic liberalisation.

This connects with the whole issue of productivity and the gains supposedly linked with IT. Following that earlier article on the connection between economic growth and happiness, some readers accused me of committing the so-called 'lump of labour fallacy'. In fact, an increase in per capita production does not imply an increase in individual productivity, for merely arithmetical reasons. It may be connected with working an increased number of hours, for instance, either by individuals or by a larger proportion of the population.

All this is rather sad for IT. Whether or not computers support increased productivity, their application invites us to critically study the way things are done. Devising automated solutions is, at its best, a creative activity that can bring its own rewards. The widespread availability of computers and global communications can be seen as valuable in themselves.

It is a pity, therefore, that many governments and corporate managements appear to be heading in a direction that works against our best interests. The negative consequences can ultimately be severe. Economic insecurity results in intolerance and stress, factors that can in the end lead to violence.

Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of economic forces that we are powerless to resist. But that is a pessimistic view, which abandons the possibility that we can influence our own future. So maybe, through democracy, we have the choice to change the direction.

Martin Brampton is founder of Black Sheep Research, an independent consultancy providing research, writing and speaking services on a wide range of business and technology issues. Martin was previously a director at Bloor Research, and has worked with IT as a user and analyst for over 20 years. He is a long-term contributor to silicon.com through videoed debates and his weekly column, which tackles a wide range of issues. He can be contacted through his Web site.