Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Plumber Problem

As I said a few weeks ago, It is always a good rule of thumb that when people say they want one thing and consistently do another, this should make you suspicious of whether they actually know what they want.

One context where this comes up a lot is what I term 'The Plumber Problem'.

It stems from a conversation with a family friend of mine, many years ago, recounting the story of a guy he knew who was a plumber in Queensland. The guy ran his own business, worked from about 10 until 4, only took the jobs he wanted to, and made a fairly decent low six-figure income. Not enough that he'd ever be rich - his kids went to public schools, he had a nice house but not enormous, and he could afford overseas holidays if he saved for them. Enough money, in other words, that he'd be comfortable, and able to spend the rest of his time enjoying life.

The question then, is this:

Why try harder?

Fatboy Slim- Come a long way baby

The point is that if you ask people in surveys (particularly white collar workers), a lot of them will say that they wish they could take a job with fewer hours and take a pay cut. They want, in other words, to be the plumber.

But having said that, they continue to take the job at the law firm, or the consulting firm, or the bank.

In other words, stated preference wants less money and less work. Revealed preference wants more money and more work.

So what the hell's going on here?

I think to understand the problem, we need to consider exactly what's bad about being the plumber. The main downsides I see are the following:

1. You have to spend you day reaching into pipes full of other people's shit
2. You have to admit to your friends and family that you have this low glamour, low status job.

Everybody would tell you that they really don't want #1. But it's not true. Is it really worse than being a first year lawyer doing document discovery 80 hours a week for less than minimum wage? Probably not.

What they really can't stand is #2. They can't stand admitting to being of low status. That's why they'll bust their guts for hours and hours to get more money for their ungrateful kids to spend.

But even that's not quite it. The real reason is this:

3. You have to admit to yourself that you have this low glamour, low status job.

And that's the mind killer. That's where the cognitive dissonance gets too strong. A failed work/life balance is much easier to live with than trying to reconcile the fact that you're apparently smart and high status, and yet working as a taxi driver. That's what people really can't take.

Not all people though. It's fair to assume that most of the plumbers of this world really aren't bothered by status. And they may well be happier as a result.

But for most people, that's not the case. Especially smart, college educated type-A personalities. They're positively crushed by their desire for status. Nobody admits that this is what they're doing, but it is.

As far as I see it, you've got three options.

You can try to find a job that has reasonable pay, high status, and not too bad hours. Yeah, good luck with that.

You can admit that you can't bear low status, and keep killing yourself at whatever job you're doing that you hate.

Or you can make a deliberate effort to stop chasing status. Take the plumbing job. Every time you find yourself resenting your low status, just remember that it doesn't ultimately matter. Train yourself out of the old mindset.

This may sound like a pep talk to choose option three. But it's not. The reality is that telling yourself to not be bothered by what other people think is like saying that you shouldn't be bothered by watching somebody get punched repeatedly in the head, or not be bothered by someone screaming furiously 10cm from your face. But humans don't work that way. If you're not naturally a person that doesn't care about status, it may be harder than you think to train yourself to not care.

You might, in point of fact, take the plumbing job and be more miserable than you were before. You might never get over the fact that you're now in a loser job, and it's too late to go back. There's a reason economists are slow to dismiss revealed preference evidence.

I never said there were easy choices in life.


  1. Where does a gynecologist fit in?

  2. I'd say that it's like the high status, high pay version of being a plumber. Dealing with yeast infections every day is not much better than cleaning out clogged sewage pipes, as far as I can imagine.