Chapter Study Outline

The Social Significance of Work

  • Work is the carrying out of tasks that involve the expenditure of mental and physical effort and has as its objective the production of goods and services catering to human needs. An occupation is work that is done in exchange for a regular wage. In all cultures work is the basis of the economy.

The Social Organization of Work

  • A distinctive characteristic of the economic system of modern societies is the development of a highly complex and diverse division of labor. The division of labor means that work is divided into different occupations requiring specialization. One result is economic interdependence: We are all dependent on each other to maintain our livelihoods.
  • One manifestation of this division is Taylorism, or scientific management. Taylorism divides work into simple tasks that can be timed and organized. Fordism extended the principles of scientific management to mass production tied to mass markets. Fordism and Taylorism can be seen as low-trust systems that maximize worker alienation. A high-trust system allows workers control over the pace and even content of their work.
  • Union organizations, together with recognition of the right to strike, are characteristic features of economic life in all Western countries. Unions emerged as defensive organizations, concerned to provide a measure of control for workers over their conditions of labor. Today, union leaders quite often play an important role in formulating national economic policies.

The Modern Economy

  • The modern economy is dominated by large corporations. When one firm has a commanding influence in a given industry, it is in a monopoly position. When a cluster of firms wields such influence, a situation of oligopoly exists. Through their influence on government policy and on the consumption of goods, the giant corporations have a profound effect on people's lives.
  • Corporations have undergone profound transformations in recent years because of increasing world interdependence, or globalization. The modern corporation is increasingly an enterprise web of many smaller firms linked together, rather than a single big business.
  • Multinational or transnational corporations operate across different national boundaries. The largest of them exercise tremendous economic power. Half of the one hundred largest economic units are not countries, but privately owned companies.

The Changing Nature of Work

  • In recent years, computer-aided design and planning tools have provided the capability to develop flexible production systems. Automation involves the use of robots in the production process. Group production, often used with automation, establishes collaborative work groups such as the quality circle, in which workers actively participate in the design and implementation of production methods.
  • Major changes have occurred in the occupational system during the course of the century. Particularly important has been the relative increase in nonmanual occupations at the expense of manual ones. The interpretation of these changes, however, is disputed. Some speak of the arrival of the portfolio worker—the worker who has a portfolio of different skills and will be able to move readily from job to job. Such workers do exist, but for many people in the workforce flexibility is more likely to be associated with poorly paid jobs with few career prospects.
  • Unemployment was a recurrent problem in the industrialized countries in the twentieth century. As work is a structuring element in a person's psychological makeup, the experience of unemployment is often disorienting. The effect of new technology seems likely to further increase unemployment rates.
  • Major changes are currently occurring in the nature and organization of work. It seems certain that changes such as a move toward globalization, and the rise of large corporations will become even more important in the future. Nonetheless, work remains for many people the key basis of generating resources necessary to sustain a varied life.