Employers have fostered a sense of belonging and identification by workers with their work. They have also encouraged a total devotion by higher level employees to their work that has gone beyond working hours. They have ensured that work is central and all consuming to their employees.
Reference: Ernie J. Zelinski, The Joy of Not Working: A Book for the Retired, Unemployed, and Overworked (Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 1997), p. 41.
Corporate America has been telling us we build our character by working hard and doing ‘productive’ things in organizations. We have learned to define ourselves by our jobs. There is something seriously wrong with this: If we think we are what we do for a living, we have lost most of our character.
Modern citizens “regard wage-work as natural and necessary for human dignity.” The value of work for the modern worker goes far beyond the pay cheque. It “has become in large part the basis for the individual’s own sense of place, identity self-respect and self-worth.”
It is for this reason that surveys since the 1970s, through to the 1990s, the vast majority of people have claimed that that they would continue to work even if they had enough money to live as comfortably as they liked for the rest of their lives. Similarly large percentages of people in Britain and in Canada also said they preferred working to not working.
Similarly, people work for more than just the pleasure and pride it brings. Although Cherrington found that 86 percent of people he surveyed said they sought pride and craftmanship in their work, most people do not find this. “In well over one hundred studies in the last twenty-five years, workers have regularly depicted their jobs as physically exhausting, boring, psychologically diminishing, or personally humiliating and unimportant.” Yet despite this most people prefer to work. Work is seen as “a basic dimension of human existence” and many people feel they would be less than human if they did not work, no matter how tedious it is.
The investment of social identity in paid work causes problems for those without it, the retired, the unemployed and the disabled. Many unemployed have “the sense that the value of one’s own personal time moves towards zero” An OECD report acknowledges that people who don’t work for a living have major problems integrating into society because paid work is a key source of social recognition and status.
The loss of a job can have consequences far beyond the loss of income. People will fight very hard to protect their jobs and in the face of such strong psychological and personal needs, other social priorities, such as environmental protection, seem less pressing. “The preservation of existing jobs has become for many the overriding social goal.”
Alternative mechanisms for gaining a sense of belonging to society, such as church and community groups, have been declining, leaving work as a more important mechanism: “traditional symbols of personal identification seem to be fading, leaving people with a strong sense of needing to ‘belong’ and to participate, but with fewer means of expressing collective sovereignty, defining general interest, and structuring solidarity.”
The irony is that at a time when most of the population in industrialised countries can conceive of no identity outside of work, corporations have been dramatically reducing their workforces, retrenching layers of management who had expected lifetime employment with their firms, and destroying the job security that had once formed the basis of employee loyalty. Millions of people around the world are finding themselve without identity and purpose.