The theme of this year's Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meeting was Invisible Labor. Work can be invisible in two broad ways. First, within the domain of work, some forms of work are celebrated and highly-valued while other forms are marginalized or not even socially recognized as work. In this way, undervalued and overlooked forms of work are "invisible labor." The classic example is unpaid household work, but the conference illustrated that invisible labor can take many forms. Second, within the broader socio-politico-economic realm, other issues and interests are commonly prioritized over those pertaining to work and workers. For each of these aspects, invisible work is almost universally seen as a bad thing. That is, we should be striving to combat invisible labor by increasing the social standing, status, and rewards that are accorded to work and workers (generally or specifically). But is more visible work always better?
Professor John Godard of the University of Manitoba has just published a very stimulating article that should be read by anyone in employment relations, human resource management, and organizational behavior ("The Psychologisation of Employment Relations?," Human Resource Management Journal, 2014). I have witnessed the trends that John describes--indeed, in my administrative roles at the University of Minnesota I have, with mixed feelings, contributed to some of them--and I share his concerns.
While the students in my personnel economics course were taking their exam recently, I was browsing my twitter timeline. In close succession, two tweets jumped out because of their direct relevance to this course. The subject of each tweet was a failed HR policy, but after only a half-semester of personnel economics, every student in my course should have been able to easily predict the risks of these HR policies based on a basic understanding of the economics behind human behavior. These are two more examples, then, of the importance of equipping HR professionals with an understanding of economics principles.
What is work? Why do we work? How is work valued? These questions are fundamental to any human society. Without a written record, we cannot know with certainty how the earliest humans thought about work, but the importance of sharing food and other resources means that prehistoric work embodied at least an element of serving a community's needs rather than just the needs of an individual and his or her immediate family.
Last month I had the pleasure of attending and presenting my work at two stimulating conferences. Interestingly, a prominent speaker at each conference echoed a similar theme--that is, scholars of work and those interested in the well-being of workers and their families need to pay attention not only to rise of job insecurity, but also to the interplay with the rise of family insecurity.