The Metaphor of the Octopus Worker

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Being from the United States where work is mostly about money and where organized labor is frequently demonized, when traveling it's quite refreshing to encounter museums devoted to workers. One such museum is Copenhagen's Arbejdermuseet (Workers' Museum). Among the many stimulating items is a plate from the early 1970s depicting a woman who needs eight arms to juggle all of her responsibilities--taking care of her family, tending to her house and household chores, and working outside the home, all with a smile. In the Workers' Museum, this is described as an octopus woman. I was able to find out that this provocative image was used by the Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund (Female Workers Confederation) as part of their fight for equal pay in Denmark in the early 1970s, but it speaks to me today on many levels.

Octopus photo.jpg
Of course there is the important level of the continuing need to fully respect work done in the home as just that--work. Unpaid care work is work that can be hard, but also rewarding; work that contributes to our families, communities, and economies, and that should be valued because of these contributions, rather than devalued because it does not directly earn a paycheck.

On another level, this image can also be a metaphor for work more generally. What is work? Too often work is looked at as only one thing, specifically as just a way to earn a living. This is not only unduly narrow, it is destructive. Seeing work only in this way means that job quality is reduced to the dollars and cents on a paycheck, and the bidding down of wages and benefits in a global economy is seen as a natural course of events than cannot be checked. When work is thought of as only about money, it creates a culture where it is necessary and acceptable to closely monitor, supervise, and incentivize employees. This is captured by another object in the Workers' Museum--a clipboard with a built-in stopwatch used by managers to break work down into simple, repetitive, mindless tasks.

clipboard photo.JPG

In my recent book, The Thought of Work (Cornell University Press, 2011), I try to fight the "one best way" approach to thinking about work that frequently dominates not only public and private policies on work, but also scholarly research. While we need to guard against work becoming all-consuming--the octopus woman image also demonstrates how easy it is to become overburdened by work--I try to embrace the metaphor of the octopus woman by recognizing and valuing work as many things. When we work, we do more than earn a living, we also create, care for, and serve others. We hopefully derive some satisfaction, but also a deeper understanding of our own identities. It is time for researchers to do a better job talking with each other across disciplinary lines, and more importantly, it is time for social norms as well as private and public policies on work to truly embrace work's fundamental importance.

Note: I initially published this entry on the No Way to Make a Living blog, September 2011.

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Say What? "Don't use words that invoke images of actual work" was the previous entry in this blog.

What is Worker Well-Being? is the next entry in this blog.

 

About this Blog

Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.