A life in the best of all parallel worlds

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Iwonder why we in England get work-life balance so badly wrong? I thought about this over Easter at a friend's house on Sandymount Beach, Dublin, pootling around the coast south of the city, visiting key sites from Ulysses, admiring my son's resilience in braving the sea.

Dalkey, the Beverley Hills of Dublin, is a sleepy village, full of good pubs and pretty vistas, but a symbol too of the success of the Celtic tiger economy. There is a marked difference between the time of day people give you here and back home. As so often when we are on holiday, the family agrees that we would like to spend more of our time doing things like this, and less time at work or waiting for delayed trains to whisk us hundreds of miles to meetings.

My second spur to thought was reading the new skills white paper alongside Richard Layard's new book, Happiness: lessons from a new science. The overwhelming rationale of the white paper is that we must strengthen the skills base in the British labour force to improve our productivity in order to compete more effectively with other industrial economies.

The paper argues that we must align post-school education and training much more closely with employers' needs. The result of all this has to be inferred, but must surely include a more prosperous society with less poverty and a population fulfilled by meaningful work. The paper does include a section that renews the current commitment to learning for personal and community development, particularly for pensioners. But at its heart is a utilitarian focus on workforce skills.

In Happiness, Layard wonders whether we have got the balance of public policy wrong. He suggests that public policy is broadly focused on securing the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but that until now the great difficulty has been in measuring happiness. He explains that economists have taken the overall rise in income as the most effective available proxy, and then points out the flawed nature of that approach.

He reports two experiments to show the difference between our attitudes to income and leisure. In the first, participants are offered a choice between two imaginary worlds, with constant prices applying in both. In one, you get $50,000 a year, while everyone else gets on average $25,000. The other world offers you $100,000, but others get $250,000. Most opt for the first, settling for fewer things but higher relative wealth.

The parallel experiment offers you two weeks' holiday a year while others get one, or four weeks' holiday while others get eight. This time, participants (and everyone with whom I have repeated the experiment) opts for the longer holidays. Income is relative, leisure an absolute good.

So why, he asks, do we organise so much of our policy around the challenge to increase overall prosperity? Layard's analysis suggests that the work-life balance in our learning policies is out of kilter. True, we still have classes where you can learn a language, improve your drawing or your parenting skills. But they are under intense pressure, as the push for vocational targets squeezes discretionary funding.

Take the case of adult education institutions, whose special character is protected in statute. These bodies - which include adult education centres in London, the Workers' Educational Association, and long-term residential colleges - all offer liberal education, as the cultural critic Raymond Williams put it, to understand the way the world is changing, to adapt and shape it.

At present, local LSCs are negotiating future programmes with these bodies, seeking greater commitment - from some at least - to achieving government targets. Why would any planner committed to social, cultural and civic education want to re-shape a distinctive beacon institution like the City Lit when competent colleges round the corner have their main focus on vocational qualifications?

But there are pressures - mainly because learning for fulfilment is no longer seen as a valid claim on the public purse. There is already evidence of a stark drop in pensioners' participation (7 per cent year on year). And the trend will worsen as budgets tighten next year. For all of us, loss of opportunity impoverishes. It is too high a price to pay for any welcome improvement in skills for work.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing education

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