In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor introduces a new interdisciplinary collection of research The new normal of working lives: critical studies in contemporary work and employment, co-edited by Stephanie Taylor and Susan Luckman for Palgrave Macmillan (2018). She discusses some of the issues it raises for social psychologists and other social researchers, concerning a contemporary worker subject.
News about changes to work tend to focus on technological developments, such as the likely effects of robotics. But working lives have already changed greatly in recent decades, and not only because of technology. ‘New work’ is discussed in an academic collection to be published in January 2018, The new normal of working lives: critical studies in contemporary work and employment, edited by myself and Susan Luckman.
The collection brings together research conducted by academics from different disciplines, including cultural and media studies, sociology and psychology. A number of the papers were originally presented in a conference stream (at the WORK2015 conference http://www.utu.fi/en/units/tcls/sites/work2015/Pages/home.aspx ) entitled ‘Reconceptualising work’. That topic and the title of the collection indicate some of the key questions addressed. What changes have occurred in the way we think about work? What aspects of work that previously might have received more attention have now come to be taken for granted as normal and unremarkable? Following from that, how are people changing themselves to manage this ‘new normal’ and become the kind of worker that's required today?
Although the collection discusses many kinds of new work, some common themes emerge. Most of the workers who were studied have high ambitions. They want to do satisfying and personally meaningful work which pays a good income, and they want to combine this with a rich personal and family life. The privileged, or lucky, can arrange their lives to achieve that. However, for the majority of the workers discussed in the collection, having everything is not attainable, or at least (as they see it) not yet.
The collection suggests that whether people today are employed by an organisation or work for themselves, they operate to a great extent as ‘loners’ rather than as part of a collective. They accept individual responsibility, for solving problems and meeting deadlines, for acquiring qualifications and updating their technological skills, and often for paying for their workplaces and equipment. Some of them have taken over work that was previously the responsibility of governments and the public sector, such as the provision of care for the elderly. Some of them are making new jobs out of activities often regarded as hobbies, like computer gaming or blogging or vlogging. Many of them bring their personal selves into their work, utilising their enthusiasms (for instance, for the gaming) or their private experiences (in the blogging and vlogging).
They also give up their personal time. They accept very long working days, disciplining themselves to work more hours with less ‘down time’. They work evenings and weekends, and in transit between home and work. They are seldom off duty so accept the breakdown of barriers between work and private life. Many of them use their homes as their workplaces, especially as a way of managing caring responsibilities.
All of this inevitably creates problems. Many of the workers don’t earn much, especially for the effort and the long hours they put in. Yet they apparently accept the difficulties as necessary. In the most extreme situations they manage by hoping for better lives in the future, even when there seems little reason to expect improvement, and sometimes when their current actions (for instance, incurring debts while working unpaid) will almost certainly create extra problems in the future.
Taken together, the collection therefore presents a picture of difficulties but also optimism, of dedication but also great expectations. It suggests that contemporary workers discipline themselves to be extremely hardworking and tolerant of difficulties, to prioritise their jobs over their private lives, to accept disappointment and limited rewards but also remain ambitious and optimistic. Is this a sustainable ideal, or even one that can be achieved? Whose interests does it serve? What is required to make yourself into this new worker? And is this the kind of person we should be aspiring to become?