The Atlantic contributor and Boston University journalism professor spoke to Knight Science Journalism fellows about her latest book, “The Job.”
“Who in their right mind would take on a subject so sweeping and so contentious as ‘work’?” Ellen Shell asked as she spoke to Knight Science Journalism fellows earlier this month.
Shell would, that’s who.
A science journalism professor at Boston University, Shell’s latest book is “The Job: Work and its Future in a Time of Radical Change.” She decided to write the book after seeing comments — many from younger people just entering the job market — on an article she wrote for The Atlantic. One 22-year-old lamented that society values only time spent on activities that are “investments in our future.” This, the commenter went on, encourages people to make their work their purpose and thus to depend on others to give their lives meaning.
“It shocked me that someone so young could take such an ominous view of her place in the universe,” Shell said. “Over time, I came to think of this growing anxiety with jobs as our national work disorder.”
So Shell began working on a book, talking with economists and people in a variety of careers, from real estate agents to hospital aides to the owner of one of the nation’s last remaining button factories. She observed that jobs are far different today than they were even just a few decades ago.
“We don’t have a cradle-to-grave job situation necessarily anymore,” she said. “People don’t sign on with IBM and stay there their entire career.”
Work has meant different things to people over the years — and its meaning continues to change today. But there’s no doubt that, as a way to provide both necessities and personal fulfillment, it is essential. Shell illustrated that point with the story of Marienthal, a small factory town in Austria where most of the residents lost their jobs in a recession in 1929. A team of social scientists descended on the town to observe what happened next.
Austria had good unemployment insurance, so no one starved or became destitute. With all that free time, one might guess that the residents would have enjoyed their newfound autonomy by pursuing hobbies or spending more time with their families.
But they didn’t. They cut back on leisure activities such as reading, local parks fell into disrepair, and relationships between members of the town began to deteriorate. Surprisingly, people who stayed busy — for instance, women who kept house throughout the day — didn’t experience these negative effects.
“Until the study came out of Marienthal, there was a real dispute in social science about whether work, per se, was really central to people’s lives,” Shell said.
Although the Marienthal study indicates that work is necessary for a balanced life, Shell emphasized the importance of a healthy attitude toward jobs. She talked about the “passion paradox,” which holds that people who feel passionate about their jobs are more susceptible to being taken advantage of by their employers. Zookeepers, she said, are a prime example: Many of them come into the profession having felt a lifelong sense of stewardship toward animals, and therefore they’re often willing to work for far less pay than their education level warrants.
Indeed, many people grow up with the idea that their work should not feel like work — that it should be something they love so much that they would want to do even without pay. But this mindset, Shell said, contributes to the passion paradox and entangles people’s sense of self-worth with their work life. For the zookeepers, “an argument could be made that perhaps they should exercise their passion outside the employment context,” Shell said. “Maybe they could be pet owners or maybe they could volunteer [with animals]. But the job itself, because of the way it is structured, takes advantage of their passion.”