Books

Book Review: The Job by Ellen Ruppel Shell

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change is a fascinating take on the concept of Job and Employment in the United States by journalist Ellen Ruppell Shell. The journalistic background of the author is pretty visible across the entire book, which is built as a journalistic investigation. I read the book as part of my current fixation on the Meaning of Work, and have found some exciting elements for that research.

The book is fully immersed in the Discourse of Work as Job, but it investigates the many dysfunctions that this discourse is creating, especially in the US Society. In one chapter, the author confronts the US perception of labour with a visit to Finland, where she investigated the perception of work there (and how local policies, for example, interpret the role of school), giving a fascinating perspective in the general European experience, where social-democratic movements have given a different take on the protection of workers in general.

The book starts with a straightforward question, can we think of work as a measure of our sanity. Again, the focus is specifically on the USA, but the problem has some very profound consequences. Americans are raised to believe in the sanctity of work, she states, linking this with the fact that America was built on the “grand career narrative,” by which almost anyone could, through hard and concerted effort, scale the occupational ladder to a middle-class life and beyond. But these elements of the narrative are failing at the moment, challenged by automation and decades of offshoring manufacturing jobs. A central tenet in the successful campaign that brought Trump to the presidency in 2016.

The contract between worker and boss—the trade-off of loyal service for security—is no longer implicit.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, page 4.

The author identifies two obstacles in reverting the decline in work success for the US.

  1. The first obstacle is the underlying assumption of scalable efficiency as the essential driver of progress. The most significant consequence she identifies is the overvaluation of certain sorts of work against others, with the fact that people have pursued jobs that hold little meaning for themselves. Plus, the focus on efficiency has ended up undervaluing work in terms of salaries and income. Only fractions of the productivity increases have been transferred into wages.
  2. The second obstacle to open and honest dialogue is the assumption that acquiring and sustaining good work is by its very nature a winner-take-most proposition by which the victories of the few condemn the many to defeat. This mostly seen from a global perspective, whereby the most straightforward measure that many propose is simple protectionism.

Investigating the Meaning of Work

To investigate these topics, the author explores different personal stories and moves in between social analysis and the psychology sitting behind the meaning of work. The book starts with a prologue dedicated to the development of Marienthal, a tiny community created not fra from Vienna that was born around a factory and built around the paternalistic principles of early capitalism. With the 1929 Great Depression, the factory declined and ended up closing, condemning the small village to a status of despair. And it is here that a couple of social psychologists, Paul Lazarsfeld and Marie Jahoda, built the very first study on the effects of unemployment, shedding light on the meaning of work in the industrial society. The Marienthal investigation was the first systematic effort to lay out in detail the true cost of unemployment—financial, psychological, and spiritual. Joblessness was an evil unto itself, demoralising people and making men abandon their sense of time. Yet, the great learning of this case study was not solely among the unemployed, but on the reaction of the many women (technically not unemployed) and a few of the men that carried on when the factory closed. They cultivated vegetable gardens and raised rabbits. They educated the children’s and clung tenaciously to the purposeful tasks that anchored them in the world and gave structure to their days.

Their work did not depend on an employer; it was indelibly part of who they were.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, page 20.

It is the women and men that were able to sustain work outside the employment context that ultimately brought back some sense in their life, meaningful learning that is at the basis of the decline of the Work as Job discourse we have seen. Ellen Ruppel Shell investigation is precisely around this core.

Chapter 1 examines in depth the way the job market works in the US and the very peculiar personal impact that rejections at job interviews or terminations have on individuals. In a world where the Job Title is the best identification of individual success at life, everything that goes in between can have profound impacts. So, the recruiting specs game, by which people are tested around cultural fit with an organisation, tries individuals’ identities most of the time. This includes meticulously crafting a rhetorical style that projects a passion for career goals that match the objectives of the employer. And this Passion element has become a vital issue in the overwork culture we have also seen described elsewhere, which dangerously hits the health of people. 

This pushes a “work ethic” that is based on full dedication to work. Yet, we have seen that toil in the absence of need is not a natural inclination. This belief in hard work, however, has pushed away from the attention on what work we want to do. Chapter 2 examines precisely this aspect, proposing some distinctions of what makes a job fair and analysing the impacts of technology and digitalisation. In this, we find an exciting reflection on the concept of talent shortage, an idea that is rejected by the author with several interesting facts. The reality is that, good workers cannot afford to invest in poorly paying and precarious jobs. The continuous quest for flexibility has damaged the need for stability and job security that many people craved for, creating numbers of people that are not “fitting” anymore this reality as they lost control of their lives.

Chapter 3 looks in depth as jobs that do not qualify as good. In the US the largest job creators are retailers, and retail does not qualify as good job, according to the writer, because its pay is very often below minimum wage. It also challenges more on the concept of automation, raising some doubts about the positive effects seen in this innovation by many, and in the ability to recover some work through new jobs. The current examples are not reassuring: the large technology companies such as Apple or Google, have only built a fraction of jobs in the US then the old manufacturing industries. And in some cases, think about Facebook and YouTube, by delegating work to users, they have created a new idea of productivity.

Chapter 4 starts from here, looking at one element that is key in today’s political debate, the role of entrepreneurs. But the authors challenge this view, showing that entrepreneurship alone is not capable of creating enough jobs. 

The Passion Paradox

The second part of the book is focused on the psychological consequences of the debate on the meaning of work. The first aspect is that, by citing the work of Michael Pratt, there is a general misunderstanding on this quest for meaning. First and foremost: not everyone seeks to find their passion. Especially in roles where we don’t produce something tangible, it’s tough to derive meaning from work itself. At the same time, the tendency also to disconnect from the workplace (an element even more actual in the current pandemic situation) further challenge this view. After all, this is an element that we have already found when discussing Flow; many people derive satisfaction not from their work, but other activities. 

Yet the idea that we have to follow our passion and find our love seems imperative in the current world. Steve Jobs mentioned that You’ve got to find what you love. But if it’s not possible to do so, what is our next step? Should we discipline ourselves to be—or pretend to be—passionate about a paying job that holds no relation to our true passions?

The admonishment to “follow your passion” seems at once comforting and daring, as though we can succeed in the conventional sense while at the same time throwing convention to the winds.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, page 104.

After all, the concept itself of passion seems not to apply to a highly organised working concept. While few would deny that many jobs require commitment, passion is perhaps better reserved for matters of the heart.

Chapter 6 looks more into the way that individuals think of work, essentially challenging the idea that most people have a “calling” for their job. Yet, if we are trusted to make meaning out of what we do, then we can thrive as individuals. 

reimagining work for the twenty-first century requires us to find ways to generate the psychological, emotional, and economic benefits of work outside a traditional employment context.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, page 134.

Are we just Human Rentals?

The Third Part of the book looks at the relationship with the world of school and education as the true catalyser for this change. It investigates, through these chapters, a few very relevant topics, starting from how work is taught at school, to the relationship between work and the world of education. Again, the idea of a skills gap is dismantled, in favour of an opportunity gap for many. 

The Fourth Part of the book starts with a visit to Finland, and the discovery that an alternative world exists in terms of the perception of work. The Finnish commitment to developing its Human Capital is known, particularly with their excellent schooling system. The core discovery, is the importance played by trust in the system, among its components, and in the capability to look at human beings instead of short term efficiency. 

Chapter 12 explores the one alternative way of looking at labour defined by the cooperative movement, with examples from the US and Spain. And spans a strong accusation at the at-will employment doctrine that is the default private sector employment agreement in the US, which led to the introduction to the idea of human rentals

Regarding ourselves as “human rentals” makes it more difficult for us to make meaning of our work, for the very reason that we are human and therefore subject to certain assumptions, including what social scientists call the “reciprocal obligation.”

Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, page 255.

This led the author to reflect on the role of labour unions, which in the US are currently on a declining path despite a generally positive perception by the public. The reality is also that trade unions in the traditional sense are probably not the answer in today’s world, which is made less of standard jobs (for which organised representation was an added value) and much more of individualised requirements. 

One possible solution is mentioned in chapter 13, where the author analyses if repatriation of production could be an alternative, maybe through the so-called maker movementThe most compelling challenge is to restart the “virtuous cycle” by which fairly paid workers produce quality goods at a price within reach of enough of us to stimulate the demand that creates more work worth doing. But is this feasible? Despite the case studies presented, the risk of also automating part of that work is alive and present. 

Conclusion

Despite its US lens, this book develops a valid point of view on much of the perception of work. It calls for concrete action by society as a whole, not just individual workers and organisations. Here lies the most significant challenge: building a future where work still holds meaning for humanity.

The future of work depends less on our digital creations than on our collective imagination.

Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change, page 320.

The focus on individual cases makes this book a fascinating read. Each of us can relate to most of the stories the book narrates. Yet, it still leaves us with a lot of questions open. Is there something that we can do as individuals? Is there something we can do as a manager or leaders of an organisation?

The focus on individual cases makes this book a fascinating read. Each of us can relate to most of the stories the book narrates. Yet, it still leaves us with a lot of questions open. Is there something that we can do as individuals? Is there something we can do as a manager or leaders of an organisation?

Awareness is probably the best output of this book, with the many questions it raises and the difficulty in finding answers in a domain that is way too often seen from the organisation perspective and not the individual one. The two years that have passed since its publication have probably reinforced some of the trends highlighted. And maybe the need to think around a new Discourse of Work.

Did you read this book? If so, why not adding your comments below?

The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change
Genre: Social Science | Rating: 4/5
By Ellen Ruppel Shell
Hardcover | 416 pp. | Currency | 23/10/2018 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9780451497253
Buy on Amazon

The Job Reviews on GoodReads

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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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