Monetary benefits ought to be secondary to the satisfaction one gets from doing a job well…

This morning I had a video conversation with my family in Australia, via the Internet. Two days ago, I sat for two hours during the evening among the gravestones in the churchyard of my village’s 800-year-old parish church. The reason was not a sudden conversion to necromancy. I was attending an open-air performance by the village drama group of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, written some 400 years ago. The Internet that we take for granted in the modern world, a medieval church, and a 400-year-old play which is still regularly performed — it would be hard to find a better reminder of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the ways in which people communicate.

“Romeo and Juliet” is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed works. It is complex, and the main parts challenge the actors with a great deal to learn. This performance, by an enthusiastic group of actors and actresses, most of them young, was of a high standard. In Shakespeare’s day, it was customary for boys to play female parts. In this village performance, the tables were turned, in that some male parts, including Romeo, were played by women. Such was the quality of the acting that this caused no confusion for the audience.

Liking what they do

As someone whose acting skills are virtually non-existent, I am always impressed by those who are good at it. What came across on this occasion was that the actors, as well as the audience, were getting pleasure and satisfaction from what they were doing. Given that there was much to learn, and much time to be devoted to rehearsals, as well as four performances, and that most members of the cast are in full-time jobs, this is a significant fact.

I wrote about job satisfaction in my Cambridge Letter on April 5 when discussing the obsession with financial rewards of senior bankers for many of whom there seems to be no other measure. I apologise for returning to the famous, or infamous, “bonus culture”. Like many others, I genuinely thought that the disaster of financial collapse would cause those who did so much to bring it about to change their attitudes.

That has not happened. Bankers are still planning enormous bonuses, regardless in many cases of the fact that the banks — and their jobs — still exist only because taxpayers have bailed them out.

Senior politicians from different sides of the political divide are making their strong displeasure known. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary (and very powerful force in the British government) is said to believe, with other senior ministers, that legislation may be needed to stop the bankers’ bonuses, recognising public concern about them. George Osborne, the Conservative shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, has declared that bonuses should be curbed at every bank that has benefited from taxpayer support.

Across the Channel, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called on banks to disclose their bonus policies and has told them to report to him at a meeting on August 25. Germany’s financial regulator has warned that German bankers could be obliged to repay bonuses if they are shown to have taken unjustifiable risks when making deals. From the beginning of next year, German banks will have to bring in pay structures that will not permit short-term incentives.

As a simple citizen, I approve of all this. Indeed, I find it almost inconceivable that anyone with even the most minimal sense of morality and duty would need to be forced by regulation and legislation to do what is manifestly right.

Couple of questions

As a simple citizen, I believe that two simple questions need to be asked of the bankers. (They are in fact questions that could reasonably be put to anyone.) The first is: do you believe that what you are doing is worthwhile? The second is: do you get pleasure and satisfaction from doing it? There are undoubtedly people in dull and unrewarding jobs who do not get pleasure and satisfaction, and they deserve sympathy. If the bonus-hungry bankers get their pleasure only from their bonuses rather than from their jobs, they should, in my book, leave the jobs and find something that they do like. Bonuses as the vehicle for satisfaction get no sympathy from me, as a taxpayer.

My advice — if the bankers asked for it, which they will not — would be: take a lesson from the amateur actors, who receive no pay, and whose bonuses come from the enthusiastic reaction of the audience.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com