A Summary of

Attitudes to Work

by Birgitta Eriksson

Doctoral Dissertation at the Department of Sociology, Göteborg University, 1998.

  • Attitudes in General
  • Attitudes Vary
  • The Pleasure of Work and Quality of Life
  • What attitudes do people have to work? How do attitudes differ between different categories of people? How can these attitudes be explained? These are the questions underpinning this dissertation. We can illustrated them with the quotes below. One comes from a woman in her fifties. She is married and has three grown-up children who have left home. When they were little, she was a housewife for some ten years, but now she has a senior administrative position in a public authority. The other quote comes from an interview with a young man who works in a hamburger restaurant.

    The above quotes represent two distinct ways of looking at work. The first sees work as a goal in itself ­ the speaker has a committed attitude to her job. In the eyes of the second speaker, work is a means of achieving goals outside work. This may be referred to as an instrumental attitude. The interviews not only indicate different attitudes to work, implicit in them are also possible reasons for these attitudes. Working conditions may well be important. The woman, who experiences her work as the most important thing in life, also describes the aspects of her work that she finds of value: a good work environment, flexible hours and a team spirit. The man raises the issue of monotonous and under-stimulating tasks, and also considers his leisure more important than work. The interviews also imply that attitudes to work may be related to one's life situation outside work. For the woman, who had previously given priority to family and children, work has a prominent place in her life, whilst the young man only sees work in terms of providing for himself. The main interests in his life seem to revolve around his life sport and travel.

    Whether these two cases are representative, which attitude predominates and how these different attitudes can be explained are issues that need further investigation. In an attempt to find answers I distributed a questionnaire to a random sample of employees in Sweden. 1,928 people responded, and the findings were complemented with about twenty interviews.

    Attitudes in General

    My point of departure for attitudes to work in general is the classification of the various meanings of work by Gunn Johansson and her colleagues. They distinguish between the absolute centrality and relative centrality of work. In the former, the meaning of work is evaluated in absolute terms without relating it to anything else. In the latter, work is seen in relation to other important aspects of life, such as family and leisure. They also distinguish between the meaning of work as an evaluation of work in general, an evaluation of the organisation that one is working in, and an evaluation of a particular job ­ one's own. If we combine these two dimensions, we obtain the table below, which contains questions that are operationalisations of the different attitudes. One of the six boxes is empty. The reason for this is that this table was not designed for constructing the questions, but only for structuring the results. The empty box could contain questions about how a person views their place of work in comparison with other places of work.

    With the table as the point of departure, I shall describe people's absolute attitudes to work in general, to their own organisation and also to their own work. Then I shall discuss their relative attitudes to work in general and to their own particular work.

    Different attitudes to work and operationalisations of these attitudes

    Work from a
    general perspective
    Your organisation Your work
    Absolute
    attitude
    Is work a dull
    necessity that you
    would rather be
    without?
    What are the
    characteristics
    of good work?
    Do you feel a sense
    of attachment to
    your place of work
    and do you see
    yourself as an
    important employee?
    Do you only work
    for money, or
    because there is
    something special
    about your work?
    Relative
    attitude
    What characterises a
    good life and how
    does this relate to
    work?
    To what extent
    should work
    interfere with
    the rest of your
    time and life?
    Which time do you
    appreciate most ­
    the hours spent at
    work or the time
    outside work?

    As for the absolute attitude to work in general, only five per cent agree completely with the following statement: Work is a dull necessity. If I didn't have to, I would not work. Work is thus a central feature in most people's lives.

    What is it then that makes people want to work, even if it were the case that they did not have to in order to make a living? In the interviews, the respondents mentioned such factors as the need for fixed routines, and the fact that we would become apathetic if we did not work. One person stated that neither society nor we would develop if we did not work. Another person claimed that families benefit from having two working adults; a further point was that we make better use of our leisure if we can relate it to work. Interaction and contact with fellow workers was also mentioned.

    All this corresponds well with Marie Jahoda's hypothesis on the latent functions of work. She lists five latent functions of work apart from salary and these are more or less reflected in the interviews. Firstly, work provides us with a sense of time. Secondly, it widens our social horizon and provides us with experiences and relationships outside our family, circle of friends and neighbourhood. Thirdly, we are rooted in a collective whose strength is greater than our own. Fourthly, work gives us social status and identity. Finally, it forces us to perform actions for purposes other than our personal objectives, which enables us to see the consequences of our own actions. According to Jahoda, there is nothing else in today's society that can fulfil these functions in the way work does. Therefore we need work, even if we did not have to work to make a living.

    Attitudes to one's own work organisation were studied by asking the respondents to choose the statement that best corresponded to their own opinion from the following two: I have a strong sense of attachment to my workplace and consider myself a significant contributor to an important activity and I have no particular sense of attachment to my workplace and/or loyalty to my employer. Most people (84 per cent) agreed with the first statement and the differences between the different categories of people were quite small. The only categories that showed a slightly greater deviation were those with highly stressful work, that is, those with the worse jobs in terms of working environment, and people with a non-Scandinavian background. There were fewer people in these categories who said that they had a strong sense of attachment to their workplace and that they considered themselves to be a significant contributor to an important activity. Herbert Applebaum claims that a sense of attachment to one's work organisation is typical of attitudes to work today. In earlier days, people felt solidarity with others in similar jobs and positions as themselves. Nowadays this has been replaced by solidarity with the company or organisation that employs us.

    What, then, is people's attitude to their own work? According to Marx, wage labour is not voluntary, but something that is inflicted upon us. The worker is his own master in his free time, but not during working hours; for working people work is simply a means of satisfying needs outside work. The social relation of wage labour therefore results in an instrumental attitude to work. However, my findings show that there is a strong commitment in people's attitude to their own work. Those who completed the questionnaire were also asked to choose which of the following statements corresponded most closely to their own opinion: This job is just like any other ­ one does one's work and the only thing that matters is the salary ­ which I interpret as an expression of an instrumental attitude; and There is something special about this job. Apart from the salary, it gives me a sense of personal satisfaction which symbolises commitment to work. Most people (78 per cent) chose the latter statement. Thus the instrumental attitude does not predominate, at least in comparison with the committed attitude.

    How do these results compare with earlier findings? Comparisons are somewhat difficult since previous research on attitudes to work has tended to focus on specific types of work and different categories of people. Some studies have looked at one particular workplace and one category of people ­ often male industrial workers. Other research has been based on a random sample of the population or of the section of the population that constitutes the labour force. However, I will attempt such comparisons.

    Speaking of the attitudes to work among industrial workers, John H. Goldthorpe, David Lockwood and their colleagues maintain that there is an increasing tendency, especially among unskilled workers, to define work in mainly instrumental terms. Walter Korpi, on the other hand, claims that there is no trend towards a widespread instrumental attitude. In his study of Swedish metal-workers only 50 per cent answered that they only worked for their wages, whilst 39 per cent claimed that their work also gave them a sense of personal satisfaction. All the same, Korpi's findings indicate a more widespread instrumental attitude than my study. On the other hand, my study is not limited to industrial workers, but even if I only select unskilled workers, my data still indicate an extensively committed attitude to work. 65 per cent claim that there is something special about their work and that it gives them something more than just their salary. My findings definitely contradict those of Goldthorpe and Lockwood, and reinforce Korpi's.

    In a study of German industrial workers, Horst Kern and Michael Schumann concluded that attitudes to work are becoming polarised since the instrumental attitude is increasing in some categories and decreasing in others. I believe that my findings contradict these as well. However, attitudes vary among my respondents in the sense that the unskilled workers give expression to a more instrumental attitude ­ relatively speaking ­ than employees in higher positions. Still, this does not support Kern's and Schumann's hypothesis, since both categories show a relatively strong commitment to their work. This rather shows a homogenisation of attitudes to work.

    The findings that most closely resemble mine are those presented by Gunn Johansson and her colleagues. They studied attitudes to work on the Swedish labour market, that is, among people who are gainfully employed or who are unemployed, and their conclusion is that the Swedish labour force places a high value on gainful employment. This conclusion is also valid for Knut Halvorsen's study, which indicates a strong commitment to work among the Norwegian people.

    The strong commitment to work revealed in my studies and in those by Johansson et al. and Halvorsen might be a result of the fact that our studies are not restricted to the industrial sector. Mats Johansson, for instance, claims that working with people gives us a greater sense of commitment, and that work in the public sector would, therefore, enhance this sense of commitment since such work often involves working with people.

    If we turn now to a consideration of relative attitudes, there was an item on the questionnaire asking the respondents to choose and rank the three most important factors in their lives from the following: being healthy, spending time with family and friends, having an interesting job, making money, pursuing meaningful leisure activities, having a good place to live, being able to make an active contribution to society, and being able to enjoy good food and drink. The results show that 53 per cent did not mention "having an interesting job" as one of the three most important factors in life. Thus we have here a somewhat different picture than the one we discussed above, where most people expressed a strong sense of commitment to work, whether to work in general, to their organisation or their own particular job. When work is placed in relation to other factors, many people (more than 50 per cent) do not consider work as one of the most important things in life.

    Here, too, there are differences between different categories of people. Of particular interest are the gender differences, where a greater number of women consider an interesting job to be one of the three most important factors in life. This is in line with earlier findings. However, if we look at young people, the results are the opposite ­ young men consider an interesting job more important than young women do.

    To determine how the respondents saw their own job in relation to life outside work, they were asked the following question: What do you value most ­ the time you spend at work, the time when you are not working, or do you value both equally? Only 8 per cent answered that their time at work was best. Almost 50 per cent placed greater value on the time when they were not working, and about as many people report no difference between the two.

    The following statement also relates work to life outside work: I do not let my work interfere with the rest of my life. More than half of the subjects agreed completely or partly with this statement. Thus many people believe that there is a limit to how much work should interfere with their everyday lives. Previous findings indicated a stronger commitment to work among women than among men, but here we find just the opposite. More women than men want to draw a line between work and the rest of their time.

    Looking at attitudes to work as such, without relating them to other aspects of life such as family and leisure, it is evident that a great number of people show a strong sense of commitment to their work. If, on the other hand, we place work in a broader context, the findings show that many people give precedence to things outside work, such as family, relatives and friends. Figuratively speaking, we can say that the attitude to work seen through a telephoto lens is characterised by strong commitment, whilst it does not show such commitment when viewed with a wide-angle lens. However, the differences between attitudes in general, and attitudes to one's own organisation and/or particular job are quite small. The personal, concrete work situation appears to be the starting point regardless of what is to be evaluated.

    Attitudes Vary

    I implied earlier that there are differences in attitudes to work between different categories of people. In this section, I will describe these differences beginning with a comparison between people with different types of working environment. The differences here are extensive. In order to classify different types of working environment, I have used a model devised by Robert Karasek and Töres Theorell. According to their theory, our working environment is determined by the degree of control and social support as well as by the demands placed upon us in our work. Using these three determinants as their point of departure, they distinguish eight types of working environment. In this context, it is interesting to note that there is a difference of 39 percentage units between the types of working environment with the highest and lowest figures in answer to the question of whether people only work for money. The category with highest figure comprises those whose work is characterised by high demands and a low degree of control and social support. Karasek and Theorell label this type of work isolated high stress work, and they also claim that it is the worst possible type. Those in the category with the lowest figure also face high demands, but also receive a high degree of social support. This type of work is termed collectively active work, and is regarded as the best in terms of a good working environment.

    The issue of whether we only work for money or because our work provides us with more than just money relates to the absolute centrality of work. Differences in working environments, however, also have to be taken into account when it comes to the relative centrality of work.

    Furthermore, attitudes vary between socio-economic classes. I have operationalised social classes in two ways, on one hand in terms of trade union affiliation and, on another, on the basis of Statistics Sweden's division of the Swedish population into socio-economic classes (SEI). The union-based classification distinguishes between membership of one of the three major groups of unions, LO, TCO and SACO (the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, the Central Organisation of Salaried Employees and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations). Social class according the SEI definition distinguishes between unskilled workers, skilled workers and salaried employees in low, middle and high positions. Regardless of how class is operationalised, more workers than salaried employees have an instrumental attitude. These results were obtained in previous studies where social classes were compared. Casten von Otter reports that 70 to 80 per cent of salaried employees think that their work has other rewards than their salary, whilst only about half of the blue-collar workers give expression to a similar view. The figures are higher in my study, especially among the workers.

    The class differences are obvious irrespective of whether we consider the absolute or the relative centrality of work. A higher proportion of unskilled workers than skilled workers say that they only work for money. A higher proportion of skilled workers than lower-ranking salaried employees say the same and the latter, in their turn, show higher figures than middle-ranking salaried employees. The lowest figures are found among salaried employees in high positions. This pattern is valid for most of the other questions as well: unskilled workers are least likely to think that an interesting job is one of the most important factors in life, whereas high-ranking salaried employees are most inclined to think so. The same is true for the extent to which people allow their work to affect the other aspects of their lives. Between unskilled workers and high-ranking salaried employees we find skilled workers, lower-ranking and middle-ranking salaried employees in that order.

    However, the answers deviate from the general on two questions. The first of these concerns the extent to which a person has a sense of attachment to their workplace and/or loyalty to their employer. Here, fewer high-ranking than middle-ranking salaried employees reported that they felt a sense attachment to their workplace and loyalty to their employer. Applebaum claims that though there is a strong sense of attachment to their work organisation among professional groups, it is not as predominant as in other categories. A possible explanation for the fact that high-ranking salaried employees report a lesser sense of attachment than middle-ranking ones may be that professionals are mainly to be found in the higher positions. Another possible reason is that more people in this category are interested in a career. Those with career goals may find their own workplace too restrictive, and their goals may extend far beyond their own organisation, both geographically and organisationally. Their current workplace is only a step on the way to somewhere else.

    The second question that deviates from the pattern shows that a higher proportion of unskilled than skilled workers value their time at work more than or as much as their free time. This is surprising considering the fact that it is unskilled workers who feel that they have the worst working environment. A possible explanation could be what Sverre Lysgaard refers to as the collective system. This is a system of defence mechanisms that develop among subordinates at a workplace and which function as a buffer between the human and the technical-economic systems. The collective system provides the unskilled workers with a comradeship which gives them a sense of attachment to their workplace, and this, in its turn, leads them to value their time at work as much as their free time.

    The measures I have chosen to describe attitudes to work suggest that women express greater commitment to their work than men. To a greater extent than men, they feel that their job is better others, they develop a sense of attachment to their workplace and loyalty to their employer, and they value their time at work. This is true for all the factors but one, and that is whether a person lets work interfere with the rest of their everyday life. It appears that women are more apt to draw a line between working life and free time. There is also a group of women who differ from the others, namely female professionals. They are not less work-oriented than other women, but they are less work-oriented than their male colleagues.

    Previous research has reported contradictory views on gender aspects of attitudes to work. Some of these findings, for example those of Mats Johansson, show that women express a more instrumental attitude to work, whilst other studies, e g Anne-Lise Ellingsæter, indicate that men have a more instrumental attitude than women. According to Knut Halvorsen, the findings depend on how we operationalise commitment to work. However, he points out that the gender differences in his study are small, and very often non-significant. On the whole, my findings agree more with those of Ellingsæter, but there is also some support for Halvorsen's conclusion that the gender differences are small, at least compared with the differences concerning working environment and social class.

    Attitudes to work also vary between age groups. Young people deviate more from the pattern than other groups. To a greater extent, they report that the salary is their main reason for working, and as a group, they feel less attached to their workplace and less loyal to their employer. Further, a higher proportion of young people do not consider an interesting job one of the most important aspects of life, and they value their time off work more highly. Thus, young people have a more instrumental attitude, both in relative and absolute terms, to work.

    We have just seen that women to a greater extent than men consider an interesting job to be one of the most important aspects of life. Among young people, we find the opposite. Young men are more work-oriented, whilst a greater number of young women consider family, relatives and friends to among the most important things in life. Young people thus appear to have a more traditional view than older generations as regards the relative attitude to work. This differs from findings reported by Bi Puranen. According to her, girls emphasise the importance of having an interesting job, whilst boys stress the importance of having someone to love and live with. However, her findings are based on answers from high school students aged about 18 without much work experience.

    Other variables that reveal differences are ethnicity, type of industry, level of employment, and experience of unemployment. Results show that those born outside Sweden, and, in particular, those born outside Scandinavia, are more likely to have an instrumental attitude.

    Attitudes to work vary between people in different sectors. A comparison between the public and private sectors reveals these differences. More people in the public sector have a committed attitude to work than in the private sector. If we consider different types of businesses, we find even greater differences. The strongest instrumental attitudes are found among those working in the retail trade, restaurants and hotels and in the mining and manufacturing industries, and the committed attitude is strongest among those in banking, insurance and public administration and other services.

    A somewhat rash but illustrative summary of the differences in attitudes in relation to level of employment would be to say that the instrumental attitude increases as working hours decrease. A higher proportion of those who work part-time and, in particular, of those who are employed less than 50 per cent say that they only work for money. This is surprising considering the gender differences we have seen so far. We know that it is primarily women who work part-time, and it would therefore be logical to expect that these groups would show a greater commitment to their work.

    14 per cent of the respondents have been unemployed at some point during the last five years. There is a remarkable difference in attitude between those with and without experience of unemployment. Those who have experienced unemployment more often report that they only work for money.

    The examples that I have given relate to the question whether one only works for money, or because work gives one a sense of personal satisfaction. These differences are also valid for the relative centrality of work. The overall impression produced by my findings, with the few exceptions I have discussed above, is that the differences between different categories follow the same pattern for all the dependent variables. They may vary in level and intensity but the overall tendency is the same.

    Earlier research has indicated three types of explanation for attitudes to work. There are those who maintain that these attitudes are closely linked to societal circumstances, for example urbanisation, the high level of welfare and the productivity of industry. Others claim that they are determined by factors outside work, such as gender, family situation and social class.

    Attitudes to work do differ between different categories of people. However, this does not necessarily mean that the differences between people explain their different attitudes to work. Other hidden variables can sometimes explain gender and class differences. Logistic regression analysis, that is the study of the effect of the distribution of an independent variable on other variables, is one method of examining such situations. Given that other variables remain constant, it is possible to discover or discount certain explanatory variables. What, then, are the most impor-tant explanatory variables that my material revealed concerning the nature of attitudes to work?

    It may be concluded that, regardless of which independent variable we choose to study, working environment and social class are the two most reliable determinants for a person's attitude to work. There is, however, a certain difference between the absolute and relative centrality of work. It appears that the working environment is the determining factor for a person's attitude as far as absolute centrality is concerned, that is, when work is viewed in terms of work alone and is not related to other aspects of life. If, on the other hand, we consider the relative centrality of work, that is, work in relation to other aspects of life, social class appears to be the most important variable. This means that the relative attitude is in the main something we bring with us to work, whilst the absolute attitude is primarily decided once we are at work.

    However, it should be emphasised out that working environment as well as social class are of great importance for both the relative and absolute centrality of work in people's lives. A person's attitude to work is something profound, an ideology, which they carry with them as they grow up. According to Göran Therborn, the ideologies of a group are formed in its confrontation with those who grow up in a certain society. These ideologies can, however, be altered by various ideological apparatus. One such is our place of work. The environment in which we work can thus alter the attitude to work formed during our childhood and adolescence. In other words, our working environment is the prism that refracts our basic attitudes.

    Considering the various dependent variables from a gender perspective alone, we may conclude that men and women have different attitudes to work. Much of this difference, however, can be explained by other factors, such as the fact that men and women work at different levels and in completely different sectors of working life, and that they therefore have different working environments. The gender differences can also be explained by the fact that men and women have different claims on work, and that they also have different views of what is important in life ­ they have different priorities.

    There is one group for which the gender differences deviate from the general pattern, and that is the professionals. No matter which dependent variables we study, or whatever new ones we introduce, it is still clear that professionally trained men are more work-oriented than professional women. One possible explanation could be that professional women often work in workplaces dominated by men. There are indications in my material that the minority gender group often expresses a more instrumental attitude towards work than the dominant one. However, these are just indications and not true results although the hypothesis is supported by Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, who claims that belonging to a minority or a majority in a certain situation is of great importance for how a person acts. In her view, those who belong to minority groups are subjected to structural mechanisms that force them to act in certain ways. Adopting a predominantly instrumental attitude to work could thus be the way the minority gender group at a workplace reacts.

    My conclusion from the above is that attitudes to work are not a direct result of being a man or a woman, since the gender differences are a result of gender segregation in the labour market. However, we cannot overlook the fact that gender is indirectly important. What is it, for example, that makes men and women choose or end up in different professions, in different industries or trades, or at different levels in an organisation?

    It is difficult to find a simple explanation for the fact that the attitudes of young people differ from those of other age groups. Age differences in absolute attitudes can to some extent be explained by the fact that young people are at the bottom of the organisational hierarchy, that they work in other industries and trades and that they have other occupations. However, this does not explain the differences in relative attitudes, that is, how work is valued in comparison to other aspects of life. The conclusion here is instead that there is nothing else in my material to explain why young people, to a greater extent that older people, value their free time most. Kanter's thesis on the actions of minorities could, however, be used here as well in order to explain why young people show less commitment to work. Since only a few young people are employed, we can assume that they are in a minority in many workplaces, although there are exceptions, such as hamburger restaurants. As a minority, they adopt an instrumental standpoint to their work.

    The most important question in connection with young people's deviant attitude to work is perhaps what it represents. Is it a result of their young age, or of changes in values in society? Will young people alter their attitudes as they mature and gain more experience of working life, or will the values in society change as the young grow older? Thomas Ziehe, a German social researcher specialising in research on young people, who says that young people today are exposed to a cultural liberation which leads to a decline in the traditional work ethic, believes the latter case is true.

    People's connection with the labour market has primarily been operationalised on the basis of whether they have permanent or temporary employment, work full-time or part-time, which type of industry they are employed in, what occupation they have and whether they have experienced unemployment. It is evident that these labour market variables are related, to a certain extent, to the absolute attitude to work. They are, however, less influential on the relative attitude to work, i.e. work in relation to family, leisure etc.

    The Pleasure of Work and Quality of Life

    Are, then, people satisfied with their work or would they rather change jobs? Most of the respondents are satisfied and have no intention of leaving their job, but even here, there are differences between different categories of employees. The biggest difference is to be found between people in different working environments. Dissatisfaction is greatest among those with isolated high-stress jobs, that is, those with a low degree of control over their work, high demands and low social support. Those who are most satisfied with their job are the ones with collective low-stress jobs, collective active jobs and isolated active jobs. There is a high degree of control in all these jobs.

    There are those, among them Janine Larrue, who claim that the time at work and the time outside work are two completely different areas of life, unrelated to each other. Others maintain that there is indeed a connection between work and leisure. This connection can be of two kinds, and these are often referred to as the transference hypothesis and the compensation hypothesis. The first implies that experiences from work are transferred to other aspects of our lives. Harold Wilensky obtained results which suggest this and Martin Meissner talks about "the long arm of work" which encompasses life outside work. However, there are also notions of the "long arm of private life" which affects our work situations (see, for instance, Ehn 1981). On the other hand, the compensation hypothesis suggests that hard and monotonous work is compensated by rewarding and varied leisure.

    My findings support the transference hypothesis, as they reveal that there is a clear link between how we perceive work and how we perceive life in general. A significantly higher proportion of those who are satisfied with their work than of those who would prefer to change jobs are also satisfied with their lives as such. Those who are dissatisfied with their work are often dissatisfied with their lives. There are, however, some groups who can compensate dull work more easily in their leisure time. This is true of women, professionals and young people but also of those in the oldest age group.

    ***

    We have now seen how attitudes to work vary somewhat depending on whether we are referring to the absolute or the relative meaning of work. They also vary between different categories of people. We have also found possible explanations for attitudes to work. Finally, I would like to mention a normative aspect; namely, whether a particular attitude is good or bad. In my view, it is desirable from a human perspective that as many people as possible have a committed attitude to work since this would appear to be the result of working in a good working environment and thus enjoying one's work. The positive nature of a committed attitude to work is also supported by the correlation between enjoyment of work and enjoyment of life and existence in general.

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