Contradictions of work in contemporary society

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In this essay, I consider two particular benefits of work in contemporary society: that of the ability to confer a sense of status upon an employee, and the ability of a worker to gain a sense of purpose from the pursuit of that work. Conversely, I also demonstrate that despite these rewards, this work can also be tempered by concerns surrounding job status anxiety and alienation.

A perceived benefit of work on people’s lives is the gaining of job status. This term refers to the worth apportioned to any particular job which, in some parts of the world, is determined using the method of job evaluation (McShane 2016). This method ascribes a higher worth to jobs entailing greater responsibility than others, or perhaps having to endure harsher working conditions than other job roles, and so forth. Whatever the criteria used, however, the result is that the worker deemed capable of performing these ‘higher worth’ jobs, may be more highly remunerated with higher wages or company cars, or by other status symbols, such as larger offices or perks specific to them.

With the use of job status-based rewards, corporations attempt to inject a sense of internal equity and fairness into a hierarchical system based on the evaluation of the job involved. In return, workers may feel a correlation between identity and perceived higher status levels. Additionally, various studies have shown that increased job status relates to a greater sense of individual job satisfaction and psychological wellbeing (Batnic 2010). Furthermore, since employees with recognised higher status may be more motivated to compete for job promotions, corporate productivity levels may be improved as a result (McShane 2016).

Conversely, however, whilst possessing a high-status job may incur immediate and tangible benefits, there are some pitfalls for both the individual and organisation. Groysberg (2011) for instance, argues that up to a certain point, a group of high-status workers can work cooperatively in a group, but once a certain tipping point has been reached, a collective of high-status workers actually decreases group effectiveness. Furthermore, whilst people may be rewarded for holding high job statuses, a hierarchy nevertheless is created within an organisation which may prove simultaneously, to be both ineffectual for corporations and stressful for workers experiencing a sense of reduced responsiveness. This, in turn, may heighten perceptions of status differences between workers within an organisation (McShane 2016).

On an individual level, the increased intensification, overloads and ‘boundarylessness’ between work and family life (Moen et. al, 2013) experienced by higher status workers, means that these employees usually endure changes to, amongst other things, the ways in which they use their time, along with the need to cope with increased competition from other workers: all of whom are vying to increase their own status levels. As a result, workers may internalise constant fears of being dismissed on a whim by an employer who needs to keep an eye out for cost-cutting measures; through to appeasing a fear that they themselves may not have satisfactorily completed quite enough of their tasks to remain valuable.

A sense of purpose through the medium of work is a concept which acquires varying meanings in different contexts. Whilst some people seek a sense of purpose in the proposed outcomes of the work engaged with, others’ sense of purpose is gained merely through the acquisition of work as a survival mechanism. Whatever the motivation, Bourdieu (2003) suggests, a sense of meaning and purpose in life is lost for those without work, for “in losing their work, the unemployed have also lost the countless tokens of a socially known and recognised function…” (p. 15).

The renowned social psychologist Marie Jahoda, in her Ideal Mental Health proposal (1958), contended that in addition to the tangible and predominantly economic benefits of employment, people acquire a further five intangible benefits including: time structure, social contact, a collective purpose, a sense of identity and status, and activities to perform. She coined these functions under the title, the Latent Deprivation Model, and argued that without employment, people’s mental health would deteriorate (Jahoda, 1980). In other words, work provides various unintended benefits to the mental health of those employed.

In modern society, the concept of alienation is discerned as the experience of “estrangement from or loss of a physical, psychological, or spiritual entity that had been of great value” (Volti 2012, p. 65). Indeed, this situation concerned philosopher Karl Marx a great deal as he saw workers almost ‘robbed’ of their ability to significantly express their contributions to greater society in their own way: their contributions instead being appropriated by greedy employers who used them for their own gain (Volti 2012). Since, Marx argued, “private ownership of the means of production is the maximum form of alienation” (Rius 1994, p. 80), he conceded that power differentials between employer and employee would inevitably lead to some sense of alienation by workers. The social psychologist Melvin Seeman further contended that there were four critical elements of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, and self-estrangement (Volti 2012). Other researchers, such as Blauner (Volti 2012) have argued that technology is also a significant factor in deciding whether a worker experiences a sense of alienation towards his or her work.

Many contemporary corporations are now paying attention to the levels of job satisfaction and feelings of alienation amongst their workforce, as it directly relates to individual behaviours, such as task performance, organisational citizenship, quitting, and absenteeism (McShane 2016), which in turn, affect corporate efficiency and profitability.

In conclusion, whilst work is an integral part of human survival, it can also provide benefits to workers, such as status and a sense of meaning in one’s work. These are integral elements for any corporation to nurture in the attainment of desired employee behaviours including, competent task performance, behaviours of organisational citizenship towards fellow colleagues, and reductions in rates of absenteeism and the loss of valuable workers. For an individual, however, whilst the absence of any sense of meaning in one’s work may result in a sense of alienation, high job status also incurs a raft of contrary issues for workers to contend with including, increased competition with colleagues, an unresponsive hierarchy, and a heightened emphasis on status inequalities. Furthermore, workers possessing high status may also harbour ongoing fears of possible dismissal, incompetency, and failure to attend to other areas of their lives. Overall, then, as with most things in contemporary society, work is a medium through which both rewards and perils are experienced by individuals.


Batnic, B,, (2010) “Are workers in high status jobs healthier than others? Assessing Jahoda’s latent benefits of employment in two working populations” Work and Stress, pp.73-87.

Bourdieu, P., (2003) “The terrible rest that is social death” Le Monde Diplomatique, pp.5.

Groysberg, J., Polzer, J., and Elfenbein, H., (2011) “Too many cooks spoil the broth: how high-status individuals decrease group effectiveness” Organization Science, pp.722-737.

Jahoda, M., (1980) Work, employment and unemployment: an overview of ideas and research results in the social science literature, Brighton, Sussex, U.K., University of Sussex.

Moen, P., Lam, J., Ammons, S., & Kelly, E., (2013) “Time work by overworked professionals: strategies in response to the stress of higher status” Work and Occupations, pp.79-114.

McShane, S., et. al (2016) Organisational Behaviour: emerging knowledge: global insights, North Ryde, NSW, McGraw Hill Education.

Rius, (1994) Marx for beginners, Cambridge, U.K., ICON Books.

Volti, R., (2012) An Introduction to the Sociology of Work and Occupations, Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publications.

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