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‘Is it reasonable for nurses to expect a secure pension?’

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‘Who on earth wants to watch a documentary about pensions?’ said my wife, turning over to Canada’s 50 Favourite Shoe Designers and settling down with a notepad, pencil and half a chocolate rabbit.

‘Not me,’ I said. ‘I don’t think I have a pension, anyway,’ which scared her enough for me to steal a chocolate ear and run.

However, the pensions programme looked funny. I had seen the trailer that bemoaned the fact that private pension funds were suffering far more in the recession than public pensions and took as its investigative premise the inherent injustice of this. ‘Why,’ asked the earnest journalist, ‘should public-sector workers be protected from the recession while the rest of us are not?’

Why indeed? In these days of easy outrage, why should someone who has nursed for 40 years retire on a final salary pension while someone who has sold cars or insurance or produced plays or guns be subject to the whims of the marketplace?

Is there a difference between working in the public sector as a nurse, teacher or doctor and working in the private industries as a lorry driver, builder or lawyer? Or is all work equal now? It used to be the case that the distinguishing factor was ‘job satisfaction’. That was what we were told as young nurses - you accept lower pay for the satisfaction of helping others. We were even mocked for it by people who worked in banks. But with professionalisation came a different set of rules. The language and standards used to measure efficiency and quality in the market place were imported into hospitals, schools and universities to ensure we were more like the private sector - accountable and, of course, measurable.

There is an ethical dimension to the choice you make when you choose nursing as a career instead of food retailer or skateboarder

Yet being a nurse is not the same as being an estate agent. These jobs are different, not just in terms of financial reward but in terms of social worth and, yes, moral value. It may be unfashionable to say so but there is an ethical dimension to the choice you make when you choose nursing as a career instead of food retailer or skateboarder.

Making that choice is significant. Deciding that you want to shape your labour so that it provides care for someone who is ill is a choice about what constitutes a worthwhile working life. I am not saying it makes you better than the dancer or the architect but I do believe it makes you different. And one of the differences is that the material rewards for excellence - for all the claims of the modernisation process - are more limited.

Recent research suggests nurses are four times more likely to need time off work due to stress, which perhaps says something about the emotional labour implicit to the job. So is it reasonable to expect public-sector pensions to offer a security private industry currently resents? Well, yes. Think of it as an acknowledgement of a life of working for the well-being of others and producing things (like health, recovery and compassion) that are not easy to put a price on. Or, better still, think of it as an incentive to people to enter public service.

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