Sat, Mar 28, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Lucky to have a job?

As unemployment continues to rise, the demands on — and expectations of — those still working begin to change

By Jon Henley  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” said God to Adam, “till thou return unto the ground.” And for much of history that’s what work, for most people, was all about — pain, degradation and drudgery. Indeed, ponos, the ancient Greeks’ word for work, actually meant “pain.”

It took centuries — until the emergence of the Protestant work ethic — for work to be seen as dignified and moral; something of a duty, even. And it took a few more, until our very own information age and the optimism of some economic good times, for the idea to emerge that a job might actually be fulfilling and enjoyable in itself.

Now, of course, assuming you are lucky enough to have a job, the relationship has changed again. By force of circumstance, as the first global recession of the 21st century really begins to bite, your job may suddenly look much more important than it has done for many years.

During the boom in the UK, there may have been years when your house earned nearly as much as you did (at least on paper, anyway). Stock options and a steadily expanding pension pot left some employees feeling that the thing they did at the office every day was secondary to their financial wellbeing.

For a certain very favoured class in the 1990s and early noughties, what mattered most was the accumulation of property and capital. And for many more, certainly if they were homeowners in areas of the country where house prices were rising fast, the future did not appear anything to be afraid of. If the worst came to the worse, we could always downsize, couldn’t we? Cut down, move out, maybe commute in for a couple days a week. All things were possible: we had a cushion.

Even if your job has always been what occupational psychologists describe as a meaningful and important part of your life, you might have felt infected by a general mood of optimism, and felt a greater willingness to take risks, be flexible, consider changes mid-stream — a sense, in short, of possibility.

Not any more. Now, all of a sudden, most people’s homes are worth a lot less, maybe even less than they have borrowed to pay for them (particularly if they remortgaged). Savings and pension pots have shrunk dramatically, by up to a third. The national mood has swung, dramatically. And jobs — those things we pretty much took for granted — are starting to look very precious indeed.

“For plenty of people out there, the attitude to work has been a bit like teenage boys towards their girlfriends: there are a lot of them about, I don’t really need to worry, I’ll be all right,” said John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. “Now everyone is realizing it’s time to settle down. It’s a reality check.”

That check affects different people in different ways, said Neil Conway of the London-based School of Management and Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck College, London — but it usually means our relationships with our bosses are undergoing a marked power-shift.

“Many people will be putting more into their jobs now,” he said. “Statistically, it’s pretty well established that when unemployment starts to climb, absenteeism falls. There’s a tendency towards ingratiating behavior, too — groveling, basically, in an attempt to make yourself indispensable.”

With daily stories of huge numbers of applicants for any new job, there may also be a distinct preference for security.

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