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Essay: On Work

An Essay by Phyllis Moen, Ph.D.

As members of the Baby Boom generation enter their 60s and people live longer than ever, many social observers are calling for a redefinition of retirement. However, my research leads me to conclude that we need to rethink and redefine work more than retirement, creating flexible and meaningful positions that are “not so big jobs.”

Dictionaries typically define work as something done for pay. But work also can be effort expended on a particular task. That includes learning, caring for others, or contributing to the community through unpaid volunteer activities.

In this country, the central focus is on work for pay. Such jobs come prepackaged, based on the ideal of full-time, continuous employment throughout adulthood. Good jobs are “big” jobs with high demands and high benefits. Social policies and practices have sandwiched these big jobs between full-time schooling and the full-time leisure of retirement.

Big jobs are equated with success, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I like to compare the architecture of work to the architecture of homes, drawing on Sarah Susanka’s book, The Not So Big House. Just as quality housing need not be huge, neither do jobs. We don’t need to continue working the McMansion jobs to gain the satisfaction, socialization, and salary that come from employment.

Not-so-big jobs can be anything — a scaled back version of a big job or something in a completely different field. A not-so-big job can even be volunteer work. Volunteers typically love their jobs because they can fashion the type of not-so-big arrangement that works for them.

Research shows the benefit of all work on health and life quality. Work lends a rhythm and routine to daily living, offers opportunities for social relationships, and provides the resources — money, social networks, health care, information, skills — that are necessary for life quality.

So why can’t we begin to open up the model of work to create a range of options? Let’s fashion good jobs that are not so big, positions that perhaps may not pay top salary but provide excellent health care, reasonable hours, and flexible schedules.

Most non-profit organizations seek to help others, build community, and enhance life quality. But non-profits often expect their employees and volunteers to follow big job clockworks and rigidities, or else work in marginal roles that are neither meaningful nor valued. The for-profit human resource model has become the de facto ideal in non-profits.

We can help change that. Look for and lobby for opportunities to work in ways you want, to volunteer in ways you want, that fit everyone’s needs. Challenge your employers and volunteer coordinators to envision new ways of organizing paid and unpaid work. Challenge non-profits to widen opportunities for adults of all ages who want to give back and make a difference but also to have a life beyond work.

Such pockets of innovation in the third sector could lead business and government to rethink and refashion the outmoded template of paid work and lock-step career paths. In doing so, they will invariably have to transform our outdated model of retirement.

Phyllis Moen holds the McKnight Presidential chair in sociology at the University of Minnesota. A prolific scholar who studies career, gender, family, health, and aging, Moen’s most recent book is The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream (2005). She currently directs a major study of flexible work initiatives, funded by the National Institutes of Health. March 2007

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