Friday, September 4, 2015

Not guilty

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, had a piece in the New York Times that referred to an international Gallup survey whch "found that almost 90 percent of workers were either 'not engaged' with or 'actively disengaged' from their jobs."  The survey can be found here (oddly, the article doesn't have a link to it).

The Gallup measure is based on answers to twelve questions.  They don't say exactly how they converted them into the 'engaged,' 'not engaged,' and 'actively disengaged' categories, but my guess is that they just added up the "yes" answers and then had some cutoffs-- more than X yes answers counts as "engaged," less than Y counts as "actively disengaged."  The questions seemed pretty straightforward:  for example, "I know what is expected of me at work" and "this last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow."

What is to blame for the low level of engagement?  Schwartz's answer is basically capitalism:  "[Adam] Smith and his descendants . . . were creating a fact about human nature."  Although almost all nations in the world are capitalist in a general sense, there are differences of degree:  companies in the United States have more freedom to maximize profits and fewer legal obligations to their employees than those in Western Europe.  So Schwartz's account implies that the United States should have particularly low engagement, and a number of the top-rated comments clearly came to this conclusion.   Actually, the United States has 30% engaged and 18% disengaged, which is the second highest level of engagement, trailing only Costa Rica (33-14).  Turning to a few European welfare states, the numbers are 9% engaged and 26% disengaged in France, 15 and 24 in Germany, and 9 and 11 in the Netherlands.

So does relatively unrestrained capitalism lead to high engagement?  Not really:  Singapore, which is even farther towards the laissez-faire end than the United States by most rankings, has only 9% engaged (and 15% disengaged).  Gallup suggests that richer countries have higher levels of engagement, which seems reasonable, since they have fewer unskilled jobs.  But the relationship doesn't seem to be that strong.  The biggest differences involve what you could vaguely call "culture":  most of Asia is low and the Americas are high, with Europe in the middle, although there are some substantial differences between apparently similar countries.

You can criticize American-style capitalism for a lot of things, but low levels of worker engagement isn't one of them.

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