Life Choices

September 19, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Economics is built on the principle of the rational person capable of making a choice between two options. In casual conversation we use the word “rational” to mean making sense but in economics it means making a choice. The choices presented may have constraints that make the word “choice” seem inappropriate. Does an addict have a choice? Yes. Sometimes we steer our lives with a critical choice of more or no more, having to choose between an unbearable more and a no more that contains an equally unbearable number of unknowns.

We might leave a job with only the hope that we can find another one soon. We may cast a no more vote, rejecting an incumbent for an unknown candidate. People living in the path of a hurricane or forest fire must make the difficult choice of evacuating the area or staying in their home and hoping they will be safe. Making a no more choice with family relationships can twist a person’s mind and soul in knots. A battered women may endure more until they reach the point of no more and leave their situation.  

As the Delta variant of Covid-19 sweeps through the population, many people are making difficult life choices about their jobs. In March 2020, the number of job openings plunged more than a third from 7 million to 4.6 million. In January this year, openings regained their pre-Covid levels and have risen quickly since then. The July report indicated almost 11 million openings, a series record.

After adjusting to online work, some workers have made that a critical preference. They have said no more to long commutes. Some have moved from dense urban areas to less populated states like Montana where rents or house prices will not consume half a paycheck. They have said no more. The sudden job loss last year caused some workers to rethink their priorities and career choice. The lack of affordable childcare has been a deciding factor for some workers.  

In economics, utility theory explores a choice between quantities of two goods. For example, will I have more pizza or more ice cream? These simple unrealistic examples help a student practice the concepts but are not suitable for no more life choices. Because these decisions act like switches, their calculations are hard to model. We may be able to bargain with our company who wants workers back in the office. Many times, we have to make a hard choice, one that can’t be undone.

We may revisit difficult choices, trying to understand and refine our decision making process. Many younger workers will look back and see this as a defining moment in their life. Some will wonder what if, replaying their choice. In a period of five years, our grandparents and great-grandparents endured rationing during WW1, followed by the Spanish flu that killed thousands, then the severe recession of 1921. Life narrowed their choices and they endured. By the time a person reaches their 80s, they have decided on more about 30,000 days. We remember the no more decisions more than we remember the many decisions of more. Each day is a crossroad.

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Photo by Einar Storsul on Unsplash

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