Economic recovery values voluntary and unpaid work

Volunteer intrinsic motivation

COVID-19 Series, I
COVID-19 Series, II

To thrive after COVID-19, the economic value in charities, non-profits and countless unpaid workers — many of whom experience gender inequality — must be a recognised factor. An unsalaried workforce often covers government provision shortfalls, presenting volunteers’ priceless gift as a stark contrast with society’s wealth addiction and material desires. As experts consider a Universal Basic Income, can voluntary work’s intrinsic motivation increase commercial productivity, boosting the economy?

Unpaid and non-profit challenges

Vulnerable volunteers stay home, shield themselves and avoid hands-on involvement. Charities cancel income-generating events, and non-profits lose valuable public interfaces. Essential unpaid workers face an increasing workload — domestic or otherwise. And so, a hidden economy struggles with ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) challenges.

In her United Nations Discussion Paper, Joke Swiebel lists volunteer and unpaid workers as those involved in ‘housework, care for children and for sick and old people, do-it-yourself jobs and unpaid community work or work in political or societal organizations, subsistence agriculture, help in family businesses, building the family house, maintenance work, transport services, etc.’

Insomuch as thriving-in-balance societies must recognise unpaid work’s value, government strategies with GDP (national output) success factors now acknowledge metrics other than growth. Swiebel summarises: ‘unpaid work should further be studied in all its different forms and should be recognized, valued and factored in as a regular element in socioeconomic policy-making.’

Gender equality

21st century thinking during the pandemic once again highlights outdated economic policy: gender inequality and women’s empowerment. Writing in The New York Times, Diane Coyle, Cambridge University public policy professor, calls the situation ‘untenable’. She explains the boundaries shifting between market value and unpaid work: ‘A broader measure of progress could reshape the way we choose to organise society by validating the valuable work that counts for little, or nothing, in our current system’.

In theory, according to Swiebel, most unpaid work could in fact be ‘replaced by market goods and paid services’ — an important point: if declining government provision or spending cuts create gaps, which the hidden economy fills, responsibility shifts to the public, and cutbacks seem to be successful. However, devaluing unpaid work erases it from balance sheets; governments sacrifice ‘efficient work forces and stronger economies‘, writes the International Monetary Fund.

As public enthusiasm grows for involvement in good causes and helpful initiatives, registered volunteer numbers increase. Yet failing to acknowledge unpaid workers skews the economy, and greed gains an upper hand over altruistic behaviour.

Volunteer thinking

Whereas personal circumstance obliges countless unseen, unrecognised people to work unpaid, millions choose to volunteer: enabling cultural change, social improvement, keeping busy, escapism, socialising, or offering help. For instance, consider the myriad reasons why 750,000 people registered with the British National Health Service to deliver urgent essentials to house-bound patients.

Volunteering represents a mindset willing to offer unconditional help and support, wherever required. Even while on furlough or during economic downtowns, willing helpers recognise voluntary work’s personal development, vocational benefit and social gain.

Intrinsic motivation is a powerful instinct, a valuable human asset to nurture.

Market norms threaten social norms

While people seeking only financial or tangible reward respond to extrinsic motivation, others who value personal achievement act with intrinsic motivation. And the difference between personality types ignores salary; rewarding job satisfaction motivates both paid and unpaid workers. Struggling leaders who fail to stimulate a workforce with financial incentive often overlook this distinction.

Many people’s key intrinsic motivation, for instance, is complementing numeracy and literacy with ‘operacy’. (Dr Edward de Bono describes ‘operacy’ as ‘the thinking involved in getting things done’, a contrast to ‘descriptive thinking’.) Voluntary work encourages people to learn things nobody teaches: a doing aptitude and critical thinking dexterity — skills often overlooked in ‘teaching to the test‘ methods.

Whether extrinsic transactions or intrinsic concerns guide people, monetising anything further damages relationships between social norms (altruism) and market norms (profit). Once self-interest releases the extrinsic monster, intrinsic motivation becomes difficult to accept — money and wealth rules OK!

From an economic point of view, social norms such as civic virtue and public-spiritedness are great bargains.
–Michael J. Sandel, How Markets Crowd Out Morals, Boston Review, 2012

Extrinsic motivation precedes greed, consumerism and impatience, which some people believe damages society; it hurts economies and perhaps even contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addicted to wealth

Behavioural scientist Professor Paul Dolan suggests addiction to wealth and material consumption might cause Homo sapiens extinction, so humanity must urgently confront its dependencies. Critically, an awakening should happen before the world returns to ‘its hyper-competitive and wealth-obsessed pre-Covid self — or worse still, a magnified version of it as economies try to make up for lost activity’. COVID-19 provides an enabling opportunity: a social and economic disruption that resets people’s perspective, a moment to ’embed new patterns of behaviour into their lives’.

Intrinsic motivation improves

Sometimes offering payment for a certain behaviour gets you less of it, not more,’ writes philosopher Michael J. Sandel.

In pursuing extrinsic motivation’s financial incentives, market norms replace social norms and economic mechanisms often backfire. A notion apparent to workers whose higher-paid colleagues seem less productive, or to organisations that question why their workforce and productivity remain stagnant. Rather than attempting to increase efficiency through payment or punishment, for instance, successful leaders present intrinsic reward, such as autonomy (independence), mastery (learning) and purpose (inspiration).

Professor Dan Ariely’s well-documented research proves, counterintuitively, that the most productive workers (volunteers in this case) receive only intrinsic reward, in contrast to paid productivity, which, albeit keeping pace with extrinsic reward levels, lags behind.

‘Pro: By incorporating the value of unpaid work in the national accounts, they would much more realistically reflect real growth and welfare of a nation and make comparisons between different points in time and between different countries more valid.’
–Joke Swiebel, Unpaid Work and Policy-Making: Towards a Broader Perspective of Work and Employment, (1999)

Financial security for all

Far from limiting people’s income — money obtained through salaries, profits, interest, other revenues — many modern economists favour Universal Basic Income to provide financial security to all, thus improving quality of life. However, inequality and redistribution of wealth — material possession or resource asset value — concerns the 21st century economy. The Pareto Principle suggests 20 percent of the global population holds 80 percent of the planet’s wealth.

As financial depression again focuses global attention on Universal Basic Income — guaranteeing everybody a living — experts urge governments to include voluntary and unpaid work’s value in the economy. An act legitimising and strengthening the hidden economy; motivating more people to recognise intrinsic benefits.

Advocating unsalaried work as social progress is far from a flawed argument, so long as economic policy favours it and governments pursue basic income strategies that redistribute wealth. And COVID-19 might just be an impetus to make it happen.

(Read about the author’s volunteering passion here.)


Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay



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