Work and identity

Work has been defined as the activity by which, in an ideal world, we use and develop skills and faculties, overcome self-centredness and join with others to help to produce what every person needs for a comfortable existence.

Any person’s work that supplies these three conditions of self-fulfilment, social participation and productivity can be said to be satisfactory and worthwhile.

Many men and women find complete fulfilment in their work, whether the tasks themselves are the humblest or the most exalted; and a ‘housewife’ or street sweeper may contribute as much to our society as a highly paid executive.

The working woman

Work has often been spoken of as having a moral or ennobling purpose. However, for many people, be mil mmmmt they male or female, employment is little more than a means to supply them with their everyday requirements. Among many other social changes that have affected Western society this century, one of the most fundamental has been the changing status of working women. In many areas of employment women have closed the earnings and power gap that put them below men in the job system.

Some outposts of male supremacy have persisted – for example in heavy industry, where physical strength is paramount in manual work – but in general concepts of what are men’s and women’s jobs are becoming more flexible.

At the same time, people have learned to recognize that housework, the traditional role for women, is indeed work. It is as worthy of respect as, and sometimes even harder than, other forms of employment and often involves much longer hours.

Negative effects of work

The harmful effects of excessive competitiveness in some jobs – especially in male-dominated white-collar careers – are increasingly understood. People who work long hours to ‘get ahead’ have discovered the cost in terms of stress and separation from their partners and families. The sacrifice of personal or domestic life to the dictates of ‘overtime’ or career progress can damage both mental and physical health.

The modern world is faced with two major problems with regard to work. Although one is ancient and the other comparatively recent, they are nevertheless interrelated. First, many forms of work are ‘soulless’, depriving the worker of time or space to develop his skills and faculties, and they may even be unproductive; and second, the late-twentieth-century problem of unemployment is seemingly insoluble. The problem of depersonalizing, exploitative work is age-old. From slavery to the near-slave labour of peasants in many agricultural societies is just a short step. In the industrialized world, the brutal and soul-destroying nature of much blue-collar work, and the mind-numbing tedium of many white-collar jobs too, is well known. The right of all working people to dignity is widely accepted, and in recent years various attempts have been made to tackle both agricultural and industrialized forms of drudgery. The sensible use of technology provides one approach. In addition, in many agricultural societies new co-operative and collective schemes are being experimented with. In the West, more and more employers are trying out “job enrichment’ programmes with varying success. Possibilities include workplace democracy (worker directors and so on), flexitime, profit sharing, job sharing, improved workplace social facilities and more job variety through, for example, periodically changing functions on a production line.