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The news that Nat Wei, the Government’s advisor on the Big Society, wants to spend more time in paid work and with his friends and family, and less time volunteering as the Big Society Tsar has lead to much gloating.

The news that Nat Wei, the Government’s advisor on the Big Society, wants to spend more time in paid work and with his friends and family, and less time volunteering as the Big Society Tsar has lead to much gloating.

Some of this ridicule is just the rough and tumble associated with being a public figure in a country that loves cutting people down to size.

However, some have seen this episode as an “allegory” of the impossibility of building the Big Society. As Polly Curtis writes in the Guardian “people don't have time to run a public service on top of holding down a job and seeing their families”.

Nat Wei himself has replied to these criticisms, saying that the Big Society “is about much more than volunteering - it's about helping people to take control over their lives, however much time they have”.

I think that the episode does tell us something interesting about the prospects for building more empowered communities in the UK but I don’t think that it has much to do with how much free time we have.

In fact, as repeated surveys have found, we currently spend, on average, three to four hours a day watching tv or dvds, and 15 minutes doing voluntary work. Having more free time does not make it easier to volunteer. Unemployed people are less likely to volunteer than people in work, even though they clearly have more “free” time.

This incident does not tell us much about the impossibility of more people volunteering, since it is quite plain that more people could volunteer more of their time than they do currently. The fact that he will still be volunteering two days a week is quite impressive.

What I take from this episode is the importance of the labour market and the lack of any serious comment on how the labour market should be reformed as part of efforts to build the Big Society.

Another article in the Guardian today looks at the labour market in Morpeth. We are told that one unemployed person is “overqualified for the few public sector, minimum-wage posts that are available – a support worker in a local care home, a contract cleaner for the council, a census collector.”

Why does he not want to do these jobs? They seem to be perfectly noble lines of work.

Dan Pink has found that people are happier and more productive at work if they have autonomy, develop mastery and work in an organisation with a sense of purpose. I would bet that these low paid jobs are not attractive partly because they are low paid, but also because they do not give workers much of a feeling of autonomy, mastery or a sense of purpose.

Whoever came up with the phrase “work/life balance” has a lot to answer for. The idea that our paid work must be something we endure in order to pay for activities that we enjoy seems a horrifying thought, especially given that we spend most of our time working, sleeping and watching TV.

If the Government were serious about giving people control over their lives then it would be contemplating ways of reforming the labour market so that people’s experience of work is itself empowering.

A recent poll found that more people agreed than disagreed with the principles behind the Big Society but thought that the Government’s policies to build this society had little chance of working. Partly, this is good old fashioned British cynicism, but it must also be a recognition of the major structural barriers that prevent people having more control over their lives and the Government’s lack of appetite to confront these barriers.

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