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Review: Life's work, and work life

"My Job, My Self: Work and the Creation of the Modern Individual"
By Al Gini
Routledge, 266 pages

graphic

In this story:

Great minds at work

Tech-tightening market

Class cab fare

Learning to love the bomb

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) - "No matter what our individual jobs and circumstances, too many of us feel that our lives as workers have been a failure because work has failed to give us what we need."

That's Al Gini, writing in "My Job, My Self: Work and the Creation of the Modern Individual" (Routledge).

Disillusioned with your job? Gini feels your pain.

"Work is the means by which we form our character and complete ourselves as persons. Work is a necessary and defining activity in the development of the adult personality. To be stripped of work is to be denied access to our full humanity."
— Al Gini, "My Job, My Self"

"The failure of work manifests itself in many ways: diminished self-esteem, toil without dignity, long hours on the job, poor pay, and the growing financial disparity between rank and file (the typical CEO in the 1990s made 150 times the average worker's pay), petty bureaucratic politics, the purposelessness of many of our tasks, the gnawing lack of creativity, fulfillment, and genuine sense of involvement on the job, the absence of autonomy, the increasing sense of isolation, excessive competitiveness, ineffective and inept leadership, physical and psychological enervation, feeling trapped in a system that primarily promotes products and profits over people, and the absence of the simple expectation of reward and recognition for a job well done."

Gee, Al, don't mince words. Or use them sparingly. (For those wondering, that last sentence was a Faulkner-like 116 words).

You might think Gini (pronounced "genie"), a lecturer on business ethics with the philosophy faculty at Loyola University Chicago, sees a perfect world as one in which we don't have to work. In fact, he says work is vital to our self-esteem. He just wishes it succeeded more.

"Work is the means by which we form our character and complete ourselves as persons," Gini writes. "Work is a necessary and defining activity in the development of the adult personality. To be stripped of work is to be denied access to our full humanity."

Great minds at work

This is a theme Gini returns to frequently in this literate and thoughtful meditation. He quotes an impressive array of figures to buttress his position.

•   "There can be no joy of life without joy of work." -- Thomas Aquinas.

  MESSAGE BOARD
graphic How do you feel about your job-satisfaction level? Is your work fulfilling? Is it something you use to define who you are in society? Al Gini's book is titled "My Job, My Self."
Tell us about your job, your self.

 

•   Without work, "all life goes rotten." -- Albert Camus.

•   Work gives one "a secure place in the human community." -- Sigmund Freud.

•   The unemployed "quickly become strangers to themselves." -- Rollo May.

Rene Descartes had it wrong, Gini asserts. Rather than, "I think, therefore I am," it would have been more accurate to say, "I work, therefore I am."

Tech-tightening market

But in the years ahead, fewer of us may be working because the computer has profoundly changed the nature of labor, Gini contends. He agrees with the gloomy forecasts of Jeremy Rifkin in his book, "The End of Work," to which he often alludes.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic How much do you see your job as a matter of self-identity?

A lot. Try as I might to get away from this, I define myself by my career.
I go back and forth. Sometimes my work plays a bigger part in my self-concept than at other times.
Almost never. I'm very clear that I'm not my work and I always think of myself in criteria other than my career.
View Results

Rifkin says that from 1979 to 1992 manufacturing production increased by 35 percent while the work force shrank by 15 percent in the United States. And Rifkin contends that it's possible there'll be no industrial, blue-collar, assembly-line workers remaining in 20 years.

"With each new development of the computer, more and more can be automated and less and less need be done manually," Gini writes.

"The American underclass," he writes, "which has traditionally been made up of African-Americans and other urban minorities, will become increasingly white and suburban as the new 'thinking machines' relentlessly make their way up the economic ladder, absorbing more and more skilled jobs along the way."

The ramifications are sobering beyond American borders. Worldwide, 40 million people enter the job market every year, Gini writes. To put them all to work over the next 30 years, 1.3 billion new jobs would have to be created. That's half the total number of jobs that currently exist in the world, he says.

Class cab fare

There are some things that can be done about this, Gini says, but none is easy. As a short-term option, he supports the proposal of economist Edmund S. Phelps, who advocates that rather than welfare entitlements, the government pay subsidies to low-skilled but competent workers to supplement their base pay.

Phelps argues that crummy pay, like welfare, creates a deterrent to work. He envisions a graduated subsidy being given to those in the lowest-paying jobs in order to bring them closer to the median income, which he says is $25,000.

"Work rules, runs and often ruins our lives, and yet, as in the psychological phenomenon known as the 'Stockholm effect,' in work we often become eager and willing prisoners of that which we may have originally rejected or rebelled against. Many of us come to love or at least need that which holds us captive."
— Al Gini, "My Job, My Self"

"These subsidies would ... reduce the unemployment rate of low-skilled workers; put the paychecks of low-wage workers closer to the median scale; decrease the unemployed worker's feelings of exclusion, dependence and powerlessness; inculcate the habits of self-efficacy and self-sufficiency; and increase employees' incentive to better themselves."

Another short-term solution, Gini writes, is to go to a 30-hour workweek in order to create more jobs. He concedes there are high hurdles to jump before this would be adopted. Many employers, for example, prefer having a smaller work force toiling longer hours so as to save on the cost of benefits. And while many workers want more time off, few want to take a cut in their take-home pay.

Long-term, Gini suggests that the government enact another jobs-creation program akin to Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, Harry Truman's GI Bill or Dwight Eisenhower's National Defense Highway Act.

Learning to love the bomb

In "My Job, My Self," Gini muses on a number of job-related issues: Women in the workplace, business ethics and workaholics, to name a few. He also points out that long before Johnny Paycheck sang, "Take This Job and Shove It," work was a source of despair for many.

graphic
Al Gini  

According to Gini, in classical Greek, the word "labor" translates to "sorrow." The modern word connotes pain and hurt. The German word meaning "to labor" translates to "tribulation, persecution, adversity or bad times." And Samuel Johnson's 18th century dictionary defined "job" as "petty, piddling work; a piece of chance work."

And yet, as Gini keeps telling us, we get much of our sense of identity and self-worth from our work.

"Work rules, runs and often ruins our lives, and yet, as in the psychological phenomenon known as the 'Stockholm effect,' in work we often become eager and willing prisoners of that which we may have originally rejected or rebelled against," Gini writes. "Many of us come to love or at least need that which holds us captive."

graphic

 

RELATED STORIES:
Free-lancers found happier than salaried employees
November 8, 2000
Mirror on management
October 31, 2000
Endangered careers: Family Farming
October 30, 2000
Job satisfaction: Oxymoron?
October 24, 2000
Special: Prosperity and pain in the new Germany

RELATED SITES:
Loyola University Chicago
Routledge


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