Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thoughts on a New Book, Just Work

Forty years ago, Studs Terkel published his famous book Working in which over 130 individuals provided their own narratives of their work. By letting workers speak for themselves in their own words with their own emphases, Working was and remains a powerful and influential testament to the multi-faceted nature of work that affects nearly everyone in deeply personal ways. Like many others, Working clearly impacted Grant Michelson and Shaun Ryan, two Australia-based New Zealanders who have written about varied aspects of work, and through their book Just Work they seek “to celebrate the significance of, and broadly continue in, the traditions established by Working” (p. 2). Just Work therefore parallels Working in presenting a variety of worker narratives about their work in their own words. Specifically, 30 individuals from a diverse set of occupations in Australia voice the good, the bad, and the ugly about their work in accounts that are nothing if not authentic, right down to the Aussie slang (which is “grouse”). 

A useful aspect of this narrative approach is that each reader can make their own interpretations and identify themes of interest. The diverse meanings of work, not only across but also within individuals, resonated with me based on the multi-faceted conceptual nature of work that have written about. As I argue in my book The Thought of Work, work is not a source of income or fulfillment or stress or identity, it can be a complex source of income and fulfillment and stress and identity and more, in practice and in theory. Beyond this, it was striking that the best and worst things at work are all of us. When relationships with co-workers, managers, subordinates, and customers are good, these are frequently cited as the aspects of work that individuals found the most rewarding and engaging. In the words of Robert the migration agent, “any job is a good job if you are working with good people” (p. 115). But when these relationships were poor, they were frequently cited as the elements of work that were the most frustrating. David, a phone salesperson had just quit his job the day before his interview because he “was starting to hate people” (p. 72). Scholars and professionals in employment relations and human resources have long asserted that people issues are of central importance in the workplace, and these accounts bring this to life. But they further underscore the impact that each of us as individuals can have on others in the workplace, whether as workers or as customers.

Another theme I saw is that how work fits with a worker’s life situation, goals, and values at a particular time is very important. This goes beyond the well-recognized issue of work-family balance to become a recognition that personal goals, whether they be around schooling, family, community, or other spheres of life, fundamentally shape how individuals think about work and influence what they see as work that is fitting. So even individuals in the same job can view their work differently (Gordon Cooke, Jimmy Donaghey, and Isik Zeytinoglu  recently identified this same phenomenon in their 2013 Human Relations article, “The Nuanced Nature of Work Quality: Evidence from Rural Newfoundland and Ireland”). Australia also provides a rich context for understanding immigrants’ experiences with their work, and the multiple narratives from those born outside of Australia reveal many of the same influences, hopes, and frustrations. I’m sure other readers will find other themes that speak to them.

Given the prominence of Working, both in the field and in this book, comparisons are inevitable. Like in Working, Just Work brings workers’ voices to us in authentic, powerful ways. Working, however, has four times the number of interviews. While this makes Just Work more accessible than its 700-page predecessor, it does limit the scope of the occupations represented. In particular, while I applaud the authors for the explicit recognition that work can be unpaid, all of the interviews, by the authors’ own admission, pertain to paid employment. The inclusion of some narratives by unpaid workers could have helped reveal similarities and differences between paid and unpaid work.

Being written by academics, I appreciate that, compared to Working, Just Work devotes more effort in the beginning and end to providing frameworks for thinking about work and the themes that emerge from the narratives. But I think the concluding chapter could have dug deeper. While the authors discuss that the nature of work has changed since Working was published, less attention is devoted to the extent to which worker’s reactions to their work has changed, or not. The authors do note that the narratives generally seem at odds with the theme of work as “a Monday through Friday sort of dying” found in Working. But is this because of differences across time, across space and culture, or other factors? Of course, these are big questions and there are no easy answers. Ultimately, we’ll need to draw our own conclusions, but the authors experienced these interviews firsthand and it would have been nice to hear more of their overall thoughts.

Lastly, the authors also include their own personal narratives about work, though they modestly relegated them to an appendix. Given the personal nature of the 30 interviews, it was nice to see the authors put themselves in this same position. These reflections thereby further add to the feeling of authenticity of the entire book. Indeed, the authors’ own stories have inspired me to make a future blog post consist of my own narrative reflecting upon my own work experiences. Perhaps it will inspire you to do something similar?

Grant Michelson and Shaun Ryan (2014) Just Work: Narratives of Employment in the 21st Century (Palgrave Macmillan).

No comments:

Post a Comment