The utility of good career choices

In economics, utility refers to the benefits or pleasure (utils) a consumer enjoys from a good or service. An ice cream in July has a higher average util than an ice cream in January. Prices tend to reflect perceived average utils, in accordance with supply and demand. This principle can be extended to help us make better life choices in our relationships with others.

Everyone understands that if Jack loves Kit-Kats and hates Mars Bars, and Jill loves Mars Bars and hates Kit-Kats, then if Jack and Jill are offered a Kit-Kat and a Mars Bar, their total enjoyment will be higher if Jack has the Kit-Kat and Jill has the Mars Bar. But the same logic extends into wider areas of our lives that are usually considered far less. The world is very complex, and many life options we have are constrained by factors beyond our control, inhibiting the ability to maximise overall human utility. Yet despite this, with the right mindset we can try to have values and make decisions in accordance with what works best for others alongside what works best for ourselves, and we can do many things that help increase the average sum of human utility. If there is one jam doughnut left at a party, and you’re offered it by the host, but you don’t like doughnuts very much, you may increase the party’s overall utility if you decline it on the basis that while you may enjoy it a bit, someone else may enjoy it a lot.

The above wisdom is especially true in important matters like your career. To put careers into perspective; in a typical working life that lasts around 50 years, calculated on the basis of an 8 hour day and 260 working days a year (excluding holidays), you are going to spend around 104,000 hours at work. If that working time was measured in consecutive days, it would total nearly 12 years of your life. Currently there are around 26 million people in the UK in full time jobs, which amounts to over 310 million hours spent at work (and that’s excluding part-time work).

These figures are only a rough approximation, of course – there are many variables in working times, preferences and priorities. But the upshot is, as a nation we are working hundreds of millions of hours in our lifetime, and therefore the UK is going to be a much better, happier place whenever people are in jobs that are well-matched to their skills, talents and passions. If we aggregated the total number of instances of people in jobs that don’t well suit their skills and talents, we’d probably find thousands or even millions of hours of value being denied to the UK in terms of opportunity costs.

Applying economic utility to jobs and working life, the cost of being in a job to which you are not well-suited is not just borne by yourself (at the expense of not being in a job in which you will thrive); it is borne by the person who is able to thrive in your job but is instead doing something else to which they are less well-suited. Across the nation, we want the next Isambard Kingdom Brunel to be working in engineering; we want the next Charlotte Bronte to be writing novels; and we want the next Paul McCartney to be writing great songs.

If the next Paul McCartney ends up fixing photocopiers, and the next Charlotte Bronte ends up managing a restaurant, they will create value, but not the kind of value commensurate with their talents. Similarly, When Jack designs an innovative mousetrap, and Jill provides an efficient taxi service, and Bob makes fantastic bread in his bakery, they probably add more value to society than they would if they were trying to write the next Penny Lane or the next Jane Eyre.

Everyone reaps more and benefits more when people are doing jobs and enjoying careers in which their skills and talents enable them to thrive. More value is created, more innovation occurs, consumer and producer surpluses increase, and the sum of human utility is enhanced. 

James Knight - guest blogger

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