The Meaning of Work
In the 1960s, the phrase “different strokes for different folks” was used to get across the point that people’s motives and needs differ. Thus, work has different meanings for different people. Studs Terkel, the author of the fascinating book Working (1974), writes that work is “a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying” (p. xiii). Kahil Gibran (1923), in his mystical book The Prophet, put it this way: “Work is love made visible.”
For some of us, work is a source of prestige, social recognition, and a sense of worth. For others, the excitement of creativity and the opportunity to give something of themselves make work meaningful. But for most, the main purpose of work is to earn a living. This is not to imply, of course, that money is the only reward in a job; friendships, the chance to exercise power, and feeling useful are also important. The meaning most of us derive from working includes both the money that can be exchanged for life’s necessities (and maybe a few luxuries, too) and the possibility of personal growth. These occupational priorities, or what people want from their employment, reflect the culture and the times in which people live.
Occupational priorities change over time because cultural values change. An excellent example of these influences is the longitudinal study conducted by American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), begun in the mid-1950s (Howard & Bray, 1988). Look carefully at the graph in Figure 12.1. Three key things are depicted. First, the vertical axis represents the rating of the importance of work in employees’ lives. The horizontal axis reflects two things: length of time in the study at AT&T (which gives an idea of the length of employment), and relative age (in general, the less time in the study, the younger the employee).
Notice how the importance of work changed dramatically over time. The longer employees were in the study, the more differentiated the various levels of managers became in terms of the importance of work. Underlying these changes are key differences in motivation for upward mobility, leadership, and desire for emotional support, depending on the age of the managers. For higher management levels, participants who had been in the AT&T study briefly had expectations of rewards from work that were much lower than those who had been in the study 10 years or more; they did not see most of their major rewards or life satisfaction coming from work. Interestingly, the picture was reversed for lower-level managers; those who had been in the study longer gave a lower rating of the importance of work.
The findings at AT&T are not unique. Other research has also documented that younger workers in upper management are less interested in materialism, power seeking, upward mobility, and competition; instead, they consistently emphasize individual freedom, personal growth, and cooperation (Jones, 1980; Yankelovich, 1981). In fact, a recent study suggests that negative costs are associated with goals for financial success. People with stronger financial goals tended to have lower overall life satisfaction (although this was mainly for people with low income levels) and lower satisfaction with family life irrespective of income level (Nickerson et al., 2003).
Regardless of what occupational priorities people have, they view their occupation as a key element in their sense of identity (Whitbourne, 1996). This
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Higher Middle ____ Lower
management level management level management level
Figure 12.1 Changes in the relative importance of work at different levels of management in the AT&T study.
Source: Howard, A., & Bray, D. W. (1990, August). Career motivation in mid-life managers. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, Montreal.
feeling can be readily observed when people introduce themselves socially: “Hi, I’m Kevin. I’m an accountant. What do you do?”’ Occupation affects your life in a whole host of ways, often influencing where you live, what friends you make, and even what clothes you wear. In short, the impact of work cuts across all aspects of life. Work, then, is a major social role and influence on adult life. Occupation is an important anchor that complements the other major role of adulthood—love relationships.