The people who are the most avaricious are usually those in the best-paid jobs.

In the past few days, there has been some surprising news from the world of major commerce. One chief executive has handed back £1.2 million of his pay, on the ground that he was overpaid. Another has decided to share his £2.4 million bonus among the staff of his retail firm. A third has taken a 25 per cent cut in his salary. These are unusual decisions, and they are most welcome.

Of course they have to be seen in perspective. The executives concerned are not going to be on the bread line. Their emoluments remain extremely high. Nevertheless, at a time when the news is usually about grossly inflated salaries and enormous bonuses, these decisions are surely steps in the right direction.

What I mean by “the right direction” is that, just possibly, they mark a move towards recognising that there is a major difference between money that is received and money that is earned. I am a member of the generation for whom that distinction was well recognised, and seen to be realistic and important. Many people now, I strongly suspect, would look at you blankly if you made the distinction.

I realise, obviously, that whatever system of financial rewards society uses, it will be impossible to make it totally fair — and, more important, widely seen to be totally fair. A whole variety of issues will inevitably have to be taken into account. They will include such things as supply and demand; levels of qualification required, and the forcefulness with which the case for a particular level of reward is made. There ought, however, to be some basic principles. The most important should be fairness; anyone who is employed should be paid a fair amount.

That, I know full well, is easier said than achieved. Even those who happily accept it as a principle come up against the fact that some jobs are better paid than others. If you have one of these better paid jobs, you will probably feel that this is right and proper. (Many years ago, when I was working as a full-time journalist, I was invited to take part in a trade union meeting discussing some salary level question. Feeling rather bored, I suggested — with tongue in cheek — that if rubbish collectors withdrew their labour the effect on society would be far greater than if journalists did. It might therefore be reasonable to argue that rubbish collectors should be paid more than journalists. The other members of the group did not appreciate my remark!)

There is obviously not a perfect, and perfectly fair, system of deciding pay. My argument is that, in general, when people choose a particular job they should recognise that in doing so they have chosen the pay that goes with it. They can, of course, hope for and seek promotion, but essentially they should accept the “pay for the job”. That is particularly important, I feel, at a time when we (that is we in the United Kingdom) are facing serous economic problems. There ought to be a recognition that we are all in it together.

As I was gathering my thoughts for this article I was encouraged to read that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has accused bankers of having “a culture of entitlement”. He has worked in industry himself, as an executive in the oil industry, before becoming ordained. After becoming Archbishop, quite recently, he has remained a member of the cross-party Banking Standards Commission, which will be publishing its final report soon. He was quoted in the Financial Times as saying that in banking and in the City of London “a culture of entitlement has affected a number of areas — not universally by any means — in which it seemed to disconnect from what people saw as reasonable in the rest of the world.”

I realise that I have been fortunate in my working life in having jobs that I greatly enjoyed. I knew what the pay was when I took the jobs, and there was no reason to demand or expect more. If I were not satisfied, the solution would have been to seek another job.

Of course the employment market is not as straightforward now as it was then, but the people who are the most avaricious are usually those in the best-paid jobs. They are the people who, in the Archbishop’s words, show that they see themselves as having a “culture of entitlement”. They ought to think again.

E-mail: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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