Few words in the English language capture so well what work has come to mean as "career."
The vast majority of Americans in the 1950s and 1960s referred to their day's labors as a "job." But in a survey of 2,000 full-time workers that my staff and I recently conducted, fewer than 40% considered the word an appropriate description of their livelihood. In fact, they use the term only when they are feeling somewhat glum about their prospects for advancement.
What changed? For one thing, during the past quarter-century, almost every occupation has required increasingly more education not only to become a member of the field but to remain one. Until recently, it was possible for someone who had earned a medical degree at 25, say, not to look again at a journal article or attend a seminar in his specialty for the next 40 years but still retain a medical license. Now, given the flood of information about new products and procedures, it is as common for doctors to worry about "keeping up" as it is for engineers.
High school guidance counselors across the country have incorporated this greater emphasis on education into the advice they give juniors and seniors by saying, only partly in jest: "In years to come, you'll need a college degree just to push a broom--and you already need at least two years of college (in California and New York) to carry a gun, as a member of the police force."
Why should a steady increase in the number of years people attend school have such a major effect on the way they view their work? Having spent so much time preparing for a profession, they have no choice but to hope that it will pay off for decades to come. To trade 12 years of primary and secondary schooling--not to mention four or more years of expensive higher education--for an occupation that is theirs for only two years would be a poor trade-off.
As a consequence, work has come to have a continuity for the majority of workers that it previously lacked. However, this kind of long-term commitment could emerge voluntarily from millions of workers only after they revised the personal meaning of how they spent their weekdays. In the past, work was something they merely did ; now it is something that they are .
Once people stopped selling just their labor to an employer--"a day's work for a day's pay"--and began to draw their sense of identity from what they do for a living, the stage was set for them to start losing sight of where their work ended and where they, as individuals separate from their professions, begin.
Actually, they had at least one good (though subconscious) reason for making the dividing line disappear altogether. They didn't get their profession from their employer; most got it, instead, in school. Interestingly, even if they were trained as a computer technician, financial publicist or salesperson by the firm that hired them to do this work, their occupation is theirs to take with them when they go. Their employer may have given it to them but can't take it away.
In that case, why shouldn't people pour themselves into their work, body and soul, overexerting themselves in the process? "Look," they can justifiably claim, "I'm not really laboring away on someone else's behalf; I'm being given a chance here mainly to deepen skills that, when all is said and done, belong solely to me anyway."
Think of how different an attitude this is from one in which workers feel that the company for which they work is ripping them off, since it ends up holding all the autos assembled, coal mined or timber sawed, while they are left with physical pain and perhaps permanent impairment. Battle lines, with the employer as the enemy, are therefore drawn much less often today--despite millions of white-collar workers being laid off as a result of aggressive cost-cutting measures and mergers.
What was the basic force that allowed work to attain so personal a meaning? The shift in the nature of the economies of the advanced industrialized nations from goods to services. Most people view this shift in terms of office versus factory work, mental versus manual activity. Yet, in retrospect, it is now clear that the most important result of the change was that people could lay claim to--call theirs --what formerly seemed to belong to their employer.
So much for the good news. The major casualty in this development has been the ability to relax. Many people are unable to find the time to do so--or so they claim. Revealingly, when they do pick a leisure-time pursuit, they feel compelled to give it many of the characteristics of work. Jogging, for instance, is a free-form activity and, in theory, one can do as much or as little of it as one wishes.
However, people who are unwittingly determined to make it seem more like an occupation can time how long they run (think of this as "punching the clock") and measure the distance they cover.
Summing up, for millions of Americans, work has become more personally meaningful in the past four decades and consumes more of their time, attention and emotions than it previously did. One can only hope that dedicated workers will make the effort needed to prevent this kind of ever-expanding involvement from accidentally costing them a satisfying personal life.