Boyer on Work

Except for a handful of individuals, we cannot choose not to work. Everything we know about society suggests that work choices are exceedingly important in shaping the values and social relations of a time.

The characteristics of a culture can, in fact, be defined by looking at work: who works; what work is valued; how it is rewarded; how do people use their leisure time? In an era when "rampant careerism" is alleged in every quarter, it is important for colleges to help students to consider the universal experiences of producing and consuming, and put their work in larger context

Websites that Apply:

The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis Economic Research Page.

The American Time Use Survey home page.

American Labor Studies Center.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration website’s main page. 

Employment Services and Unemployment Insurance as described in the Illinois Department of Employment Security's website.

The 2007 Annual Report to Congress about welfare dependency.

Federal publications and other documents related to the work of the Glass Ceiling Commission (1991-1996).


Ed Cell’s Discussion Paper

3. Work: the Value of Vocation

There is little that tells us more about ourselves and our society than the way we value and organize work. Many of our most astute thinkers, such as Freud, have contended that only love plays a comparable role in determining what life is for us and most of the same questions can be asked about each.

Consider, first, questions about our human nature and what sorts of needs are most deeply rooted in us. Are these needs largely physical or do they include those central to being a self? If the latter, does the humanistic tradition have it right in focusing on self actualization--the development and use of our distinctively human powers? Reference to these powers is really a reference to our genetic endowment. They are thought to include our capacity to care for ourselves and others, to act in self-chosen ways, to embrace an ethical vision of the point of human life, and to be creatively productive. On this view, it is vital that we find fulfillment in our work (and in our love) by giving expression to powers that make us human.

Consider, next, questions about how we become persons in our social transactions and how this accords with the demands of our human nature. If we achieve identity and meaning by our interactions with other persons, then work is basic to this process because of the great amount of time most of us devote to it and the decisive role it has in enabling us to maintain and enhance our lives. The identity-creating recognition that comes from work tends to be offered to us largely in terms of power and prestige. This situation encourages the "careerism" that Boyer refers to in which work is seen mainly in terms of climbing toward the top. The question we may wish to consider is whether this way of viewing work does not drain it of the sort of meaning we most need from it, namely, meaning that is experienced in putting our powers to creative, socially constructive use. Similarly, we could ask to what extent we are socially conditioned to see love as a matter of power, vanity, and the like.

We can also ask what work tells us about our society. What sorts of things do we most want to produce? How do we relate to each other in our work--who makes the decisions, what moral concerns are acted on, how is work evaluated? What does it mean that white males have the best chances of being hired, of finding the most prestigious and best paying jobs, and of being retained and promoted? How do the requirements of work success affect our non-work lives--our leisure, our family life, the values we impart to our children, and, generally, how we think and feel and even worship? A basic principle in all this is that the way social interactions are patterned in one area of life affects them in other areas, and what most of our interactions have in common tells us the kind of society we are. Consistencies in each area of social behavior are what we refer to as institutions and we turn now to this subject.

Summary: How are work and work relations in our society, or in other societies, related to human nature? Is work at best a means to something else--say, money or prestige--or do we need for it to be an expression of our powers to be productively creative? What do work and work relations tell us about our society, including the ways in which we distribute opportunity and wealth, provide social standing, and assign social responsibility? How do the requirements of work success affect our non-work lives?