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The Promise And Betrayal Of Modern Work

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FTdynamo.com This is the latest in a series of columns written for HR Zone from management education portal FTdynamo.com.

Joanne Ciulla, a professor at Virginia’s University of Richmond, is fascinated by work. She noted all the cartoons and commentaries about how miserable it is to work in most jobs and thought: “When did this start to happen?” And “what is the history of people’s feelings about work?”

The result is a bold book, The Working Life: The Promise And Betrayal Of Modern Work (TimesBusiness, 2000). Three Rivers Press is releasing the book in paperback this year.

Ciulla is one of the founding faculty of the Jepson School at her university, which is the only school in the world to offer an undergraduate degree in leadership studies. She has also held the UNESCO Chair in Leadership Studies at the United Nations University International Leadership Academy.

She talked recently to FTdynamo.


FTd: You talk about the “promise and betrayal” of work. What’s the promise?

JC: Work is about hope — the hope of making a living that allows one to live a good life. By the second half of the 20th century the meaning of work expanded beyond getting a living, thanks in part to the industrial psychologists who studied how to get the most out of employees. In our culture one’s job promised prestige, identity, self-efficacy, community, meaning, and more. The social contract was that if you did your job well you could keep it until you retired.

FTd: And the betrayal?

JC: The obvious betrayal of work came when the social contract was broken in the early 1990s. The fickle global economy and the business remedy of downsizing began to alter the way employees think about work. Many loyal employees sacrificed weekends, evenings, and time with their children, only to discover that their employers would drop them in a heartbeat. They were betrayed when they saw that loyalty and commitment were one-way streets.

Furthermore, as people became more consumed by their jobs, they had less time for the rest of their lives, families, and so on. Yet, few have jobs than satisfy all of the things people need to be happy. Despite the rhetoric, companies aren’t “families”. Only families are families.

FTd: What was the research process like, looking at the workplace over a long span of time?

JC: History tells us where we came from and gives us a place to stand so that we can see where we are going. I started with the ancients, who saw work as a curse, and traced how the meaning and importance of work escalates in culture. One notable anomaly in the ancient world was the ex-slave Aesop. His fables, such as the “Grasshopper and the Ant”, raise a fascinating set of questions about work and how one should live. Other key figures in this area are St Benedict who, in the 6th century, preached prayer and work, while 1000 years later Martin Luther reversed the faithful’s priorities to work and prayer.

FTd: Is it safe to guess that you like your work?

JC: Yes, I like my work as much for what I do as for the structure of the job itself. I teach, write, and consult for a living. However, I have a tremendous amount of discretion over how I do my work, where I do it, when I do it, and with whom I work. I value the freedom as much as the work itself. I like being able to work like mad seven days a week for months on end, and then go for a long vacation. On vacation, I don’t take work, I don’t check in with the office, and I don’t leave a number where I can be reached for anyone but family.

FTd: Do most executives have any decent kind of work/life balance?

JC: It is difficult to give a blanket answer to this one. As I say at the end of the book, there is no magic balanced work/life formula. However, I offer these test questions. Executives might ask themselves: “Does what I do at work make the rest of my life and the people in it happy? When I look back on my life, will my work be worth the sacrifices that I made in other parts of my life?” They might also think about whether there is another way to imagine doing their job that produces a higher quality of work and life. Right now, executives carry their time on planes and in the office as badges of courage.

FTd: Is it important in management to get away from the job? Can overwork affect the quality of management decisions?

JC: Ever since the turn of the 20th century scientists have been studying work fatigue. I think when people work long hours the quality of their work reaches a point of diminishing returns. It is foolish to think that working seven 18-hour days will allow you to make better decisions. You only make more decisions.

FTd: How do you see people working in the future? Working more? Less?

JC: We still have not gotten over the industrial notion of work time, which says the longer a person is on the job and the faster he or she works, the better. Technology has not made us work less, because it has increased expectations about productivity. It changes the way we work and the distribution of jobs but it does not necessarily mean less work. People have lost jobs in industry but found them in services. The larger issue is whether technology will decrease the number of well-paid jobs for the average worker who is not a superstar and provide living wage jobs for those at the bottom of the economic scale.

People in post-industrial societies might work less if the social meaning of work and our desire to own things changed. I don’t think this will happen in the near future; it often takes some large personal, economic, environmental, or political catastrophe to jolt people and societies into rethinking how they live and what they value.

FTd: Where does Joanne Ciulla go from here?

JC: This summer I will start a book on how globalization is altering the concept and role of leaders. In particular, I will be looking at how the media and information technologies have made us focus on the immorality and morality of leaders and leadership. Like my last book it will be an interdisciplinary study that uses a variety of fields such as history to help us understand what about leadership is changing and what about it is timeless.


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