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A social psychological view of contemporary workers.

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:01

In this week's blog, the module team for Advancing social psychology (DD317) turn their attention to the contemporary experience of work and employment

Earlier this month, a UK government spokesperson talked about the problem of 'bad work' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39849571). Matthew Taylor, head of a government review, noted the problems of 'in-work poverty'; insecure employment, often linked to the 'gig economy', and the poor quality experience of workers who don't feel 'engaged' with what they do.

This is just the latest of many criticisms prompted by the changes in work and employment that have taken place in advanced economies like the UK over the last few decades. For example, the boundaries between work and free time are less clearcut than in the past: think of the contrast between 'clocking out' at the end of the working day, as used to be common, and checking email on the commute home and throughout the evening and weekend, as many people do now. Partly as a consequence, working hours are longer. Another change is that more people today work for themselves, freelance or self-employed or running their own businesses. And even workers in conventional employment are nowadays expected to be more responsible, self-managing, innovative, future-focused and, in a word, entrepreneurial.

For social psychologists, these changes raise questions not only about 'good work' but also 'good workers'. We know that work is an important part of people's identities (which is one reason why unemployment can be such a negative experience). People define themselves by what they do and they feel bad if they are not credited with doing it well, or if they are in jobs which don't seem to represent who they are or want to be.

Of course, some of the changes to work and employment may offer improvements, such as more autonomy for workers, greater flexibility in how they manage their own work, and more of the engagement that Mr Taylor is calling for. Nevertheless, many social psychologists take a more critical position, asking questions about the problems and conflicts which might ensue. Are the changes making it more difficult to be a good worker today, especially for certain categories of people? Who do the changes favour and who do they disadvantage? We might speculate that a requirement to be engaged and flexible is more challenging for people who carry heavy responsibilities in their lives outside work, for instance, as parents or carers. As a different point, perhaps a future focus comes more naturally to younger people. On the other hand, responsibility is a quality associated with maturity and therefore perhaps with age.

A further issue to consider is how the changing requirements of work might shape workers themselves. The conventional household arrangement of a (male) breadwinner and a (female) full-time homemaker is now less common, and also less of an ideal. How has its erosion affected parent roles? What are the wider implications for 'normal' gender identities?

Yet another point which interests social psychologists concerns the ways that people re-make themselves in response to changing social demands. Do today's workers discipline themselves to resemble a different ideal of the good worker? Are they learning to be more entrepreneurial? Are they accepting different values, prioritising flexibility over loyalty or creativity over conscientiousness? And if they are, do these changes come at a cost, conflicting perhaps with other values and identities?

These questions are discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) in Chapter 10 'New workers as contemporary subjects'.


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