Our health is fundamental to our prosperity and well being. Nothing symbolises the importance of the health of people than the Coronavirus outbreak. With a risk to people’s lives society has shut down. Given the relationship between peoples health and wellbeing, you would imagine nurses would be one of the best-paid jobs in society. They do after all play a vital role in keeping people healthy. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Office for National Statistics analyses annual income in the U.K. The average pay for nurses in 2019 was £33,242 ($41,599). Compare this to financial managers who earned on average £66,353 ($82,954), or marketing directors who averaged £80,411 ($100,529).
A pattern emerges where jobs providing services to society are on the lower end of the pay scale. Careworker’s (average salary of £19,104 or $23,883) look after the vulnerable. Youth workers (average salary of £25,514 or $31,897) play a crucial role in supporting communities. These jobs (alongside nurses) are the building blocks of society, without them society would break down.
On the whole, jobs at the higher end of the pay scale tend to focus on generating wealth for companies. These roles offer value to companies, but their social value is low.
In a perverse dynamic those we depend on the most are rewarded the least, and those we depend on the least are rewarded the most. This relationship seems irrational but it’s normalised and so goes unquestioned. What’s going on here, why are nurses paid so little when their value to society is so high?
A celebration of self-interest
If our health is so important to the well being of society you would think it’s in everyone’s interest to reward nurses with great pay. Higher pay would make nursing a sought after occupation, increasing competition for jobs. The more competition the bigger the talent pool to choose from. Ultimately making sure people are being served by the best health care professionals.
This would make sense in a society prioritising social value. But we live in a consumer-centric society. The focus is on maximising profits for companies, not in maximising value for peoples wellbeing.
Our reward mechanisms align to roles generating wealth for companies. Financiers and marketers fit that category, and the individuals in these roles are incentivised by rewarding them with high salaries.
This structure makes finance or marketing jobs sought after. Helping to increase competition and providing companies with a large talent pool to choose from. The social value created by a role is negligible because it’s not aligned to the dominant reward mechanisms.
The social structure promotes self-interest and selfishness, encouraging everyone to look out for number one. Only the most ruthless get the best paid, most sought after roles.
A rejection of altruism
Nursing is a whole different ball game. Rather than generating wealth, health care is a cost to the government. Nursing may have high social value, but the occupation serves no purpose in generating wealth. The value of a nurse is in nursing people back to health. By its nature, nursing is an altruistic occupation.
In a consumer-centric society, roles encouraging people to consume keep the wheels of our economy turning. A marketer has more value than a nurse in this social structure.
Reward mechanisms are set-up and directed towards occupations emphasising rewarding individuals. Altruistic jobs with high social value aren’t rewarded as they don’t complement the dominant idealogy underpinning the structure of society.
It’s all in our genes
Selfishness and self-interest have become embedded in our social structure. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has done much to cement these beliefs in society.
Darwin’s theory emphasises the importance of natural selection in the evolution of species. Those most adapted to their environment are more likely to survive. The term the ‘survival of the fittest’ was coined through a belief that selfishness is naturally beneficial for the human race. Selfishness is a requisite for survival, and in a hostile world, only the most selfish will prevail.
Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations shares this sentiment. Smith is considered the father of economics and his philosophy still influences attitudes on economic thinking today. In The Wealth of Nations Smith argued ‘it is his own advantage, indeed and not that of the society, which he has in view’. In short, everyone is out for themselves and has their self-interests at heart.
The views of Darwin and Smith have had a powerful influence on the underlying belief systems informing the structure of society. The idea we’re driven by self-interest and are naturally selfish has come to form our understanding of human motivations. These views underpin how we perceive ourselves as a species, and we’ve designed a structure promoting and advancing these qualities.
The flaw in designing a system promoting self-interest and selfishness is we’re also naturally predisposed to altruism. Robert Axelrod argues this point in The Evolution of Cooperation. It is our altruistic tendencies that result in cooperation. He suggests the behaviours encouraged in society depend on how society is structured. Our society focuses on the promotion of self-interest and selfishness over altruism. As a result, we’re incentivised to act selfishly.
We’re stronger together
To create an economy that works for everyone it’s necessary to reject beliefs celebrating selfishness and self-interest of the individual. If the Coronavirus has taught us anything it’s that society is stronger together. We all depend on one another for our prosperity and wellbeing. If we all focused on our self-interests no one would devote their lives to helping others. Life would be pretty bleak and joyless.
The beliefs feeding the promotion of selfishness and self-interest need reevaluation as without altruism there would be no cooperation and society would break down.
The Coronavirus outbreak has seen heroic efforts, all grounded in altruism, not selfishness. Do you think Captain Tom Moore’s valiant effort in raising £33 million ($41,256,660) for the NHS was driven by selfishness? No, his desire came from a selfless concern for the wellbeing of others.
How society is structured and what we place value in needs reanalysis. We need to create mechanisms that celebrate altruism and reward jobs with high social value.
Clearly, society can’t function without nurses, so rather than clap for their heroic efforts, maybe we should be demanding they get paid more.
The attitude of self-interest and selfishness is toxic and reinforces differences between people. These attitudes have no place in a society placing an emphasis on rewarding social value. Nurses may well be respected but that respect doesn’t translate into financial rewards. It’s about time it did.