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What's All in a Day's Work? More Than We Think

10/03/13
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“People no longer have a long-term contract with their employer and the employer doesn’t have a long-term contract with their employees. In a nutshell, we’re on our own — we’re untethered. The nature of work has become another aspect of life that is not easily predictable. More and more people are anxious about their jobs, anxious about holding onto their jobs.” —David Blustein (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Oct. 3, 2013

Lynch School of Education Professor of Counseling, Developmental and Educational Psychology David L. Blustein teaches and writes extensively about the psychology of working. He also maintains a small, one-day per week practice assisting individuals who are struggling at work, or with under- or unemployment. He is the author of the 2006 book The Psychology of Working: A New Perspective for Counseling, Career Development and Public Policy. In his 15th year at BC, Blustein was honored last month with a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society for Vocational Psychology of the American Psychological Association. He spoke recently with Chronicle’s Ed Hayward about editing the new book The Oxford Handbook of the Psychology of Working.

Describe The Oxford Handbook of the Psychology of Working.

My goal was to put together some of the best minds on issues of work and career, from a psychological perspective. These issues are critically important because of unemployment and underemployment and the widely held viewpoint that beneath the recession there has been a huge transformation in the world of work. These radical changes actually started 20-25 years ago – the loss of stability in a long-term career – and have been propelled by the recession. As the recession lifts, we’re going to see a huge transformation in work. What does it mean to not have stability in work? What does it mean for mental health, for the health of communities or for the health of a nation? Those are some of the broad issues we’ve tried to look at.

What led you to take on this project?

I was looking for a way to follow up my first book, The Psychology of Working. So I put together this group of high-powered academic experts and policy experts in order to get a whole host of people looking at these issues very much from psychological, social, political and policy perspectives.

How long did the project take and what was the primary challenge you faced?

This was a three-year project. I was fortunate to work with so many distinguished colleagues, in some cases people who served as my mentors. The main thing was to create a coherent theme for the book and to work with the authors as they wrote to that theme.

How did your past research, teaching and clinical experiences shape the editorial direction of the book?

What I was trying to do was give voice to people who are struggling in their work lives and to convey that work problems are more than unemployment statistics. These are real problems that affect people in our families and our communities. In some ways, this book tries to address the idea, which I support, that people have a fundamental right to work. It’s a crucial part of being alive in the world.

From a psychological standpoint, why is work important?

Work provides us with a means of survival. It provides us with a means of social connection and relatedness. When I work with people who are unemployed, one thing they discuss is a lack of social connection, of isolation. Work provides us with a means of self-determination. Work is crucial to our psychological wellbeing, to our financial wellbeing and to the wellbeing of our communities.

How is the “nature of work” changing?

People no longer have a long-term contract with their employer and the employer doesn’t have a long-term contract with their employees. In a nutshell, we’re on our own — we’re untethered. The nature of work has become another aspect of life that is not easily predictable. More and more people are anxious about their jobs, anxious about holding onto their jobs.

You describe wars, famines, poverty, violence and other major crises as related to working. How so?

Let’s look at World War II. One of the causes of the rise of fascism was massive unemployment in Germany. In many cases, famine is a result of unequal distribution of resources by government. We know that as you create work for people, you’re more likely to foster democracy and that can combat famine. Similarly, fighting over scarce resources will increase the probability of war and extreme violence. We know from earlier works, like William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears, that a lack of work leads to increased violence.

Following the recession, the US economy has struggled to add jobs. Are there factors related to this period of job growth that are fundamentally different from other recoveries, and what kind of long-term implications do they hold?

One thing about this recession is that it has hit the poor and working class more than any other part of society. Unemployment among these groups is much higher. We see that people are not recovering from the recession without 21st-century skills. It highlights that we all – be it the Lynch School, a community college, or a neighborhood group – need to help people develop 21st-century skills. But there is still skepticism that the unemployment rate will come down far enough. Some people believe an unemployment rate of four, five or six percent is tolerable, but I don’t think so. And, as the book documents, there are real consequences to people not working.

How difficult is it for people to learn new skills, to re-skill?

It’s not easy. The older people get, the more challenges they face. The US doesn’t have an organized system to do the job. The best potential institutions to do this may be community colleges, which are increasingly becoming more nimble in response to the needs of their communities.

Why do we work?

In the career development world, the view is that we can implement our dreams, our values and our interests in the world of work. Work can be this meaningful experience. If we broaden our horizons and include people who don’t have as much choice in what they do, we see that for some people work is tedious, sometimes denigrating, and sometimes physically painful. Sometimes work is not going to be fulfilling.

My view is we all have aspirations to do something meaningful, to accomplish something. It’s in our genes. I think we have an inherent desire to create, to produce, to have a sense of accomplishment. So I do think work is a manifestation of a natural desire to do something with our lives.