What is Alienation?

Working definition: the separation or estrangement of human beings from some essential aspect of their nature or from society, often resulting in feelings of powerlessness or helplessness.

Today, the concept of alienation has become part of ordinary language, much used in the media. We may be told, for example, that who groups are becoming alienated from society, or that young people are alienated from mainstream values.

With such usage of the concept we get the impression of the feeling of separation of one group from society, but the concept has traditionally been used in sociology, mainly by Karl Marx, to express a much more profound sense of estrangement than most contemporary usage (IMO).

Origins of the concept

Sociological usage of the term stems from Marx’s concept of alienation which he used to develop the effects of capitalism on the experience work in particular and society more generally.

Marx developed his theory of alienation from Feuerbach’s philosophical critique of Christianity – Feuerbach argued that the concept of an all powerful God as a spiritual being to whom people must submit in order to reach salvation was a human construction, the projection of human power relations onto spiritual being. Christianity effectively disguised the fact that it was really human power relations which kept the social order going, rather than some higher spiritual reality, thus alienating from the ‘truth’ of power was really maintained.

Marx applied the concept of alienation to work in industrial capitalist societies, arguing that emancipation for workers lay in their wrestling control away from the small, dominating ruling class.

Later, Marxist inspired industrial sociologists used the concept to explore working relations under particular management systems in factories.

Marx’s historical materialist approach began with the way people organise their affairs together to produce goods and survive. For Marx, to be alienated is to be in an objective condition which as real consequences, and to change it we need to actually change the way society is organised rather than changing our perception of it.

Work in the past may well have been more physically demanding, but Marx argued that it was also less alienating because workers (craftsmen for example) had more control over their working conditions, work was more skilled and it was more satisfying, because workers could ‘see themselves in their work’.

However, in 19th century industrial factories, workers effectively had no control over what they were doing, their work was unskilled and they were effectively a ‘cog in a machine’, which generated high levels of alienation – or feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and of not being in control.

It doesn’t take too much of a leap to apply this analysis to late-modern working conditions – in fast food outlets such as McDonald’s or call centers, for example.

Marx’s theory suggests capitalist production creates alienation in four main areas:

  1. Workers are alienated from their own labour power – they have to work as and when required and to perform the tasks set by their employers.
  2. They are alienated from the products of their labour – which are successfully claimed by capitalists to be sold as products on the marketplace for profit, while workers only receive a fraction of this profit as wages
  3. Workers are alienated from each other – they are encouraged to compete with each other for jobs.
  4. They are alienated from their own species being – according to Marx, satisfying work is an essential part of being human, and capitalism makes work a misery, so work under capitalism thus alienates man from himself. It is no longer a joy, it is simply a means to earn wages to survive.

Marx’s well known (but much misunderstood) solution to the ills of alienation was communism – a way of organizing society in which workers would have much more control over their working conditions, and thus would experience much less alienation.

Critical points 

Marx’s concept of alienation was very abstract and linked to his general theory of society, with its revolutionary conclusions, and as such, not especially easy to apply to social research.

However, in the 20th century some sociologists stripped the concept from its theoretical origins in order to make the concept more useful for empirical research.

One example is Robert Blauner’s ‘Alienation and Freedom (1964) in which he compared the alienating effects of working conditions in four industries – focusing on the experience of the four key aspects of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and self-estrangement.

Blauner developed ways of measuring these different types of alienation incorporating the subjective perceptions of the workers themselves, arguing that routine factory workers suffered the highest levels of alienation. However, he found that when production lines became automated, workers felt less alienated as they had more control over their working conditions.

Blauner’s work ran counter to existing theory that technological innovation and deskilling would lead to ever greater levels of alienation. It also suggested alienation could be reduced without destroying capitalism.

Continuing Relevance

While the collapse of Communism suggests that Marx’s general theory of alienation is no longer relevant, many firms today seem to have taken on board some aspects of the theory – for example, it is well establish that increasing worker representation and participation reduces worker ‘alienation’, as outlined in the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. Another example of how firms combat alienation is the various media and tech companies which design work spaces to be ‘homely and comfortable’.

Other sociologists have attempted to apply the concept of alienation to criminology (Smith and Bohm, 2008) and even the study of health and illness (Yuill 2005).

Signposting

Alienation is one of the key concepts of Marxism, one of the main sociological perspectives taught across the A-level sociology specification. This post should be most relevant to the Theory and Methods module, usually taught in the second year.

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Sources

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

Do bad exam results matter?

Results day tomorrow, and I predict that Social Media will be full of comments by celebrities telling students that exam results don’t matter that much because ‘I failed my exams, but I still found success’.

This happened last year during The Guardian’s live chat following the release of  the 2016 GCSE results. The chat even supplied a link to a list of ‘famous school flops‘, which include the big three examples of ‘success despite educational failure’ – Alan Sugar, Richard Branson and Simon Cowell, but I can’t really see the relevance of these examples to today’s youth – all they demonstrate is that white men born before 1960 had a chance of being successful if they failed their exams, hardly representative.

There are a few comments from younger celebrities who claim that getting bad exam results are not the end of the world, because despite bad exam results, they have managed to build successful careers. 

From radio presenter Darryl Morris (no, I’d never heard of him either, although I do recognise him):

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Darryl Morris – with 10 year’s of hobby-experience, a cheeky-chappy personality and a lot of luck, you too can be successful, even if you failed your exams!

I missed out on my desired GCSE results because I spent most of my revision time practising at the school radio station. I have no English qualifications and dropped out of a college that reluctantly accepted me to pursue a radio career – now I am a presenter and writer….You don’t need anybody’s permission to be successful – it comes from your passion, commitment and ambition.

From Ben Fogle, presenter of every outdoor program the BBC has made this century:

‘Exams left me feeling worthless and lacking in confidence. The worse I did in each test, the more pressure I felt to deliver results that never came. When I failed half my A-levels, and was rejected by my university choices, I spiralled into a depression.

The wilderness rescued me. I have been shaped by my experiences in the great outdoors. Feeling comfortable in the wild gave me the confidence to be who I am, not who others want me to be… it strengthened my character and set me back on track.’

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Ben Fogle – If you’re independently schooled, screamingly middle class and very lucky, then you could also network your way into a TV presenting career, even if you fail your exams

Finally, Jeremy Clarkson tweeted: “If your A-level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”

The problem with the above is that every single one of the above examples may well be talented and passionate about what they do, as well as hard-working, but IN ADDITION, they either exploited what you might call ‘alternative opportunity structures’, they networked their way to success, or they were just plain lucky, in the sense of being in the right place at the right time: 

Morris was presenting radio from a very young age, so already had lots of experience by the time he was snapped up by the BBC at 16 – so this guy’s ‘alternative opportunity structure’ was through school and local community radio – a very niche way to success.

TBH I don’t know whether Clarkson networked himself onto Top Gear – but he went to the same fee-paying private school (Repton School) as the executive producer of the program, so even if the old-school tie wasn’t part of it, he would’ve oozed cultural and social capital because of his class background.

As for Fogle not only was he independently schooled (so culturally well prepared for his future at the BBC which is chock-full of the privately schooled), -he was also lucky enough to have been at the right age/ fitted the profile for the BBC’s Castaway 2000 series, which catapulted him into fame, he’s also quite charming, which no doubt helps!

So all these case studies show us is that if you want to be successful, then exam results don’t matter IF you have alternative opportunity structures to exploit, AND/ OR you have sufficient social and cultural capital to be able to be able network your way into a job. 

This important qualification (excuse the pun) to the ‘exam results don’t matter argument’ is backed up by Frances Ryan who points out that such comments tend to come from upper middle class adults, for whom as teenagers, poor exam results mattered less because their parents’ wealth and their higher levels cultural and social capital opened up other opportunities for them.

However, Ryan argues that for teenagers from poorer backgrounds, getting good exam results may well be the only realistic opportunity  they have of getting into university and getting a graduate job, which, on average, will still pay you more over the course of a life time than a non-graduate job.

A classic way in which this inequality of opportunity manifests itself is that wealthy parents are able to support their 19-20 year old teenagers to either do another year of A levels, or an access course, or an unpaid internships for a few months or a year to give them a second chance, poorer kids don’t have these options, not unless they want to go into crippling levels of debt.

So – do bad exam results matter? Judging by the analysis above, it matters more if you’re from a working class background because education and qualifications provide the most likely path way to social mobility…..but less so from an upper middle class background.

Having said all of that, if you’ve woken up to the idea that a normal life is basically just a bit shit, then exam results don’t really matter at all. Trust me, jobs aren’t all that! Why not try one of the following alternatives instead:

  • Do voluntary work
  • Become an eco-anarchist
  • Become an artist
  • Go travelling
  • Go homeless
  • Become a monk
  • Live with your parents for the rest of your life.
  • Learn to live without money.

For more ideas about alternative career paths, you might like this post: alternative careers: or how to avoid working for a living.

How to Improve Work in the United Kingdom

Below is my summary of chapters 6-11 of the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, which deals with what needs to be done to make work better for more people in the UK.

Executive summary: we need to deal with the following areas:

  • Legal issues – we need greater clarity in the law pertaining to employment status and employment rights (dealt with in chapter 5) and we need fairer enforcement when people make claims against their employers (dealt with in chapter 8)
  • Flexible worker arrangements – we need to make sure that flexibility isn’t one sided, we need to make sure it benefits all workers, not just a companies and some workers (dealt with in chapter 6)
  • We need to make sure business is responsible – which includes making sure that workers feel more ‘included’ in work, or that work is less ‘alienating’ (chapter7)
  • Taxation – We need to re-jig the taxation system so it’s fairer for the employed and the self-employed (chapters 9 and 10)
  • Education needs to play a role in getting people ready for the future challenges of employment.
  • Worker progression – employers need to provide more opportunities for workers to progress.

Legal issues/ Improving Clarity in the Law (chapters 5 and 8)

The context for this chapter is that the law surrounding work and workers’ rights is becoming more complex given the diversification of types of work.

There are currently three types of ‘worker’ in the UK (according to UK employment law) – employees, self-employed and ‘workers’.

  • Most people in the UK will be ‘employees’, with the full range of employment protections available. This is because the majority of people still work in traditional, full-time roles.
  • For others who are genuinely self-employed, employment protections do not apply. For those who are neither employees nor self-employed,
  • the status of ‘worker’ provides a relative safety net, ensuring that a group of more casual workers are protected by a set of baseline rights – such as the National Minimum Wage

The report basically argues that there is too much confusion in, for example, gig economy work, over whether workers are genuinely self-employed or not – basically, companies such as Uber have tried to defined their workers as self-employed, while at the same time effectively controlling the hours they work, but recently Uber employees managed to win a court judgement that they were in fact ‘workers’ rather than ‘self-employed’, meaning they are now entitled to more protections than they would have been under the ‘self-employed’ label.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done in setting down guidance over how to determine whether an employee is genuinely self-employed or a ‘worker’ for a company such as Uber.

Chapter 8 deals with the problems workers face if they wish to make a legal challenge against their employer through an employment tribunal – the basic problem seems to be that it costs a few hundred quid to bring an employer to a tribunal and workers need to prove their employer is in the wrong, rather than the other way around.

The report recommends that the onus be on the employer to prove they are employing their employees under decent conditions.

Flexible Working/ Tackling One Sided Flexibility (chapter 6)

This chapter starts off by noting certain advantages of flexibility:

  • It can enable business to respond to changing market conditions and has supported record employment rates.
  • Individuals have the opportunity to work in a range of different ways, on hours that fit around other responsibilities, such as studies or caring responsibilities.
  • The Labour Force Survey published in March 2017 found that almost one fifth of people on zero hours contracts are in full-time education, and 68% of those on zero hours contracts do not want more hours.

There are also certain disadvantages:

  • There is an issue of flexibility not being reciprocated, with a requirement to be available for work at very short notice, without any guarantee that work will actually be available.
  • Flexible work makes it very difficult for a person to manage their financial obligations, or for example secure a mortgage, which can feel unfair, especially when the reality of the working arrangement is that the individual regularly works 40 hours a week.
  • While in theory individuals in these working arrangements have the right to turn down work, many are afraid to do so because of fear of unfair dismissal.

The report notes that ‘too many employers and businesses are relying on zero hours, short-hours or agency contracts, when they could be more forward thinking in their scheduling. Workers need to be able to make informed decisions about the work that they do, to plan around it, and to be compensated if arrangements change at short notice’.

It also notes the following, specific problems and recommendations

  • There are problems with the 26 week period before a lot of ‘workers’ rights kick in.
  • Some agency workers aren’t clear how much of their wages is going to be deducted in tax/ NI – this needs to be made clearer by agencies.
  • It’s unclear how holiday rights can be worked out for casual workers whose hours of work vary from week to week.
  • Workers who have been on temporary/ Zero Hours contracts for 12 months should have the right to request permanent/ guaranteed hours contracts.

The report cites two examples of companies which have got it right with their flexible employment policies – For example the Brewery Adnams and (surprisingly?) McDonalds:

Brewing company Adnams used zero-hour contracts to accommodate the seasonal nature of the business. However, through involvement in the Beyond Pay inquiry, they recognised how this contributed to employees experiencing in-work poverty. They moved all their existing staff onto contracts that guaranteed a minimum number of hours a week. To tackle low pay, they reduced and redistributed bonuses paid to their senior team.”

‘In April 2017, McDonald’s offered 115,000 UK workers on zero-hours contracts the option of moving to fixed contracts with a minimum number of guaranteed hours every week. The fast-food chain offered fixed-hours contracts after staff in its restaurants complained they were struggling to get loans, mortgages and mobile phone contracts because they were not guaranteed employment each week.

The company found that about 80% of workers in the trial chose to remain on flexible contracts and it reported an increase in levels of employee and customer satisfaction after the offer. Staff were offered contracts in line with the average hours per week they worked. This included contracts of four, eight,16, 30 or 35 hours a week

Responsible Work

This chapter is about two things – worker voice and transparency.

Worker Voice

The report recognises that worker voice (having a say in the way the business is run) is an important part of workplace satisfaction.

Those in routine jobs report the lowest levels of satisfaction (57%), while GIG economy workers (maybe surprisingly) report high levels of satisfaction. It’s recognised that worker voice isn’t really a problem in SMEs.

There is legislation in place to make sure that management consult workers over management decisions (especially on restructuring issues) but this only covers large employers with over 50 employees.

Transparency

This simply says companies should report on how many workers on zero hours contracts have requested guaranteed hours, and how many of those on temporary contracts have requested permanent contracts.

The recommendations for this section are pretty wishy-washy – reviewing legislation etc.

Taxation (chapter 9)

Currently, the different rates of National Insurance in particular mean that the UK system of taxing labour is not neutral – a self-employed person doing the same work as an employed person can pay a different amount of tax or National Insurance despite receiving similar contributory benefit entitlements in return.

The self-employed no longer pay any of the employer NICs contribution and their own rate is now lower than the employee rate: an employee pays NICs on their earnings at a rate of 12%, and their employer pays 13.8% on top of this.

For example, someone earning an average UK salary (around £28,000) would pay £2,095 in National Insurance if they were employed. But they would pay £159 less if they were self-employed.

In addition, the employed person’s employer would have to pay £2,409 in National Insurance on top of this. But the self-employed person does not face this charge. This means that for both the individual and their employer, they will pay less in tax/NICs if they are self-employed rather than employed.

These differences in tax are even larger for people working through their own company.

The Review considers that this situation is not justified, or sustainable, nor is it conducive to the goal of a good work economy, mainly because self-employed people generally enjoy the same protections as employed people, yet pay less tax.

Chapter 10 deals with the issue of self-employment, making the following recommendations:

  • Making it easier for self-employed people to take up traditional employment alongside their self-employed work.
  • Encourage flexible benefit platforms tied to individuals, not companies.
  • Encourage the self-employed to save more.
  • Move towards non-cash transactions to avoid ‘cash in hand work.

Chapter 11 – the relationship between education, training and work

The government’s main strategy for boosting work related training in the last decade has been increasing the number of apprenticeships – and it is now committed to providing 3 million of them (I assume running concurrently).

Apprenticeships are now partially funded through an ‘apprenticeship levy’ which is now placed on large employers (with a pay bill of over £3 million) in order to encourage them to take on apprenticeships (the arguing being if they’re paying for it, they may as well benefit from it!). However the report argues that a blanket level this isn’t fair as some large organisations simply don’t use apprentices, while some smaller firms (who don’t pay the levy) might.

The report also expresses concerns (almost as if Apprenticeships are a bit of a red-herring) about the radical decline of in-work training – only an extreme minority of those currently in-work have any kind of updating or progression training in recent years.

There is also concern about the growing difference between the type of education/ skills people have and the kind of skills required for work. At the top end, there are too many graduates and not enough graduate jobs, and at the bottom end there are too many very low-skilled people.

Another thread in this chapter is the need to equip workers with the skills that enable them to transition from job to job, because most people will switch job several times in their careers, and so learning how to reskill is crucial. A related point here is that the government needs to commit more to ‘lifelong learning’.

Finally, schools and colleges need to do more to teach ‘soft skills’ through courses and provide work experience, to get pupils ready for the real world of work.

Very finally, the report recommends banning unpaid internships because these are so damaging to social mobility.

Chapter 12: Opportunity to Progress

This chapter firstly deals with atypical workers – those most likely to be in low paid, temporary, part-time or gig work – namely women and younger people, arguing that there are sufficient legal instruments already in place to protect these workers, and the only recommendation it makes is to change the regulation on statuary sick pay to make sure that the very lowest paid workers have a right to it.

In terms of progressing (in one’s career) the report doesn’t really say very much here – other than it is possible to ‘progress’ while doing flexible work, and that self-employment might be an important element here.

Final chapters

The report rounds of with going over its seven recommendations for making work fairer, which I summarised in this post.

Overall summary: how to make work ‘work’ for more people

The overall message seems to be that work is fine for most people, and that in general there’s sufficient regulation in place to protect most people.

Some of the ‘stand out’ specific recommendations the report makes are:

  • To give ‘temporary and flexible workers’ more rights and protections:
    • To reduce the period (currently 26 weeks) of time before ‘temporary workers’ get the same protections as permanent workers
    • To give temporary workers the right to request a permanent contract after a certain period.
  • To clarify the difference between ‘worker’ and ‘self-employed’ so that employers can’t exploit people.
  • To force companies to be more explicit and transparent about their terms of employment for temporary and flexible workers.
  • To make the self-employed pay more tax.
  • To get schools and colleges to better prepare pupils for a life as a ‘portfolio worker’.

 

An Overview of the UK Labour Market (2017)

Adapted from Taylor’s ‘Good Work’ Report (2017). This report reviews the current state of work and makes (some fairly limited and piecemeal) policy recommendations about how to make work fairer for more people.

Characteristics of the UK labour market

The Review coins the term ‘the British way’ to describe the current working landscape in Britain – Full-time, permanent work remains the norm, but other ‘atypical’ arrangements are usually chosen and valued by the individuals concerned. The authors argue that this system works effectively for most people, and hence their recommendation that we should aim to improve the quality of work within this existing framework.

To back up this view (that work ‘works’ for most people, numerous evidence is given including the following:

  • In recent years the UK labour market has been characterised by strong performance, with record high levels of employment and the lowest unemployment rates since 1975. The current employment rate of 74.8%8 is the highest since records began. The unemployment rate, at 4.7%, is the lowest since 1975. The inactivity rate9, at 21.5% is the joint lowest since records began.
  • The UK is widely recognised as having one of the most flexible labour markets in the world. The UK is rated as having the 5th most efficient labour market in the World, which is seen as vital for economic productivity.
  • Full-time, permanent work as an employee continues to make up the majority of employment in the UK (63.0%). However, there has been a notable shift towards more flexible forms of working overtime, with changes in levels of self-employment and part-time working in particular.
  • Currently, almost 26.2% of employment is in part-time work, compared to 25% in 1997 and self-employment now accounts for around 15.1% of total employment.

Key trends in the way we work

‘Traditional’ full-time employment continues to dominate the UK labour market and has only declined 1.6 percentage points from 64.6% to 63.0% over the last twenty years; with the most noticeable fall occurring during the most recent recession.

This section outlines some of the trends in ‘atypical work’ of which part-time and self-employed working are the main sub-types.

Employment by type UK
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Part time work

  • Part time work makes up 26.2% of total employment, and has generally been on the rise for the past 20 years.
  • The majority of part-time workers (70.7%) say that they do not want a full-time job.
  • 4% of part-time workers say that they are working part-time because they could not find a full-time job.

Self-employment

  • Self-employment reached a high of 15% of total employment during 2016.
  • Self-employed people are slightly more likely work part-time than those in regular employment.
  • Joinery, plumbing and construction are the largest sectors for self-employment.

Agency work

  • There is a lack of robust data on the number of agency workers in the UK.
  • Estimates range from 800,00 to around 1.2 million.
  • The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) estimate of 1.2 million is generally considered to be more reliable,

Temporary workers

  • Temporary workers, who include temporary agency workers, account for around 1.6 million of the total number of UK employees.
  • Around a quarter of temporary workers (25.5%) state that they do not want a permanent job, while 27.4% say that they are a temporary worker because they could not find a permanent job.

Zero Hours Contract

  • 905,000 people (2.8% of those in employment) are reported to be on a zero hours contract.
  • 65% of people on zero hour contract work part-time (65%).
  • Younger people, those aged 16-24, are also more likely to work on a zero hours contracts and account for one third of total zero hours contracts.
  • 18% of those on a zero hours contract are in full-time education
  • Whilst data suggests that there have been large increases in the number of people on zero hours contracts since 2012, this increase is, at least in part, due to an improved recognition of this type of contract. This means that we cannot know with certainty that zero hour contracts are on the rise and in fact reported numbers have stabilised in recent periods.

Multi-jobs

  • Approximately 1.1 million people, or 3.5% of the total number in employment, have a second job.
  • This proportion has been fairly stable at between 3.5% and 4.0% for the last ten years.
  • This official data probably doesn’t include people earning additional money in a more casual way, through the use of online platforms for example. McKinsey Global estimates that 20-30% of the working age population are engaged in independent work. This includes self-employed people but also accounts for people using sharing or gig economy platforms e.g. individuals renting out rooms on Airbnb, driving for Uber, or selling goods on eBay or Etsy.

Gig economy work

The gig economy tends to refer to people using apps to sell their labour. The most commonly used examples are Uber and Deliveroo but there are many and a growing number of platforms facilitating working in this way.

  • The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) estimate that there are approximately 1.3 million people working in the gig economy in the UK, equivalent to 4% of the UK workforce.
  • 58% of gig economy workers are permanent employees, which suggests that most gig economy workers use gig work to supplement income from more ‘traditional’ employment,
  • Research suggests that the gig economy will continue to grow.

The report also notes that limitations with current survey data means that we do not know for certain how many people are undertaking gig economy work and whether they are doing so to supplement other work, or substituting employment totally with this type of work.

Why the Labour Market Doesn’t work for everyone

The key factor is an imbalance of power between individuals and employers. Where employers hold more power than employees, this can lead to poorer working conditions and lower wage levels. The relative amounts of power are linked to geographical mobility.

There are also problems pertaining to self-employment….where companies might redefine a worker as self-employed, thus denying them holiday pay and other benefits and there are many examples of increasing media and public concern in relation to worker exploitation.

Two previous recent government reviews looking at this issue are:

  • The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s ‘future world of work and rights of workers inquiry’, prompted by the Sports Direct scandal; and
  • The Work and Pensions Committee’s ‘self-employment and the gig economy inquiry’, focusing on bogus self-employment.

Challenges to future work:

The report lists a number of challenges to future work – including:

  • Poor real wage growth
  • Poor productivity
  • Getting the skills to match the jobs (the proportion of graduates working in low-skilled jobs increased from 5.3% in 2008 to 8.1% in 2016.)
  • New business models and platforms for working
  • Automation

At the end of this chapter the report restates its belief that the UK labour market needs to maintain its flexibility and dynamism in the light of Brexit, it also recommends that we don’t need to do anything about automation yet, and that all we need to do is to maintain a ‘value commitment’ to ‘good work’.

Five Reasons Women Don’t Get Promoted

Paula PrincipleFive reasons why women are less likely to get promoted than men include discrimination, caring responsibilities, lack of vertical networks, lack of self-confidence and ‘positive choice’ – at least according to Professor Tom Schuller in his recent book ‘The Paula Principle: How and Why Women Work Below Their Level of Confidence‘.

The context of this research is that there are now nearly two women for every man in UK universities, which suggests increasing levels of competence among women compared to men, but this is not the case in the world of work – the rate at which women are catching up to men in the world of work (as measured by the pay-gap for example), and especially in the higher ranks of the professions, is not as rapid as it should be based on the relatively high numbers of female graduates.

Five reasons women are less likely to get promoted than men

  1. Discrimination – both overt and covert – here prof. Schuller reminds us that people are likely to employ people who are ‘like them’, and in most cases it’s men doing the employing to higher positions.
  2. Caring responsibilities – women are more likely to go part-time to care for children and increasingly for their elderly parents. here prof. Schuller points out that there is this tendency to see only full time workers as being ‘serious about their careers’.
  3. Lack of vertical networks – men tend to network more with people above them.
  4. Lack of self-confidence – women are more likely to feel they can’t move up the career ladder, whereas men just ‘go for it’.
  5. ‘Positive Choice’ – women are more likely to make a positive choice to stay employed below their level of competence. They simply make the rational decision that they are earning enough and are fulfilled enough where they are, and don’t believe the increased stress of moving up the career ladder to a job they won’t necessarily enjoy would be worth the extra money.

So which factor is the most important?

Tom Schuller suggests this will be dependent both on the sector, the employer, and the individual, but he would never say that it’s purely the fault of an individual woman for failing to get a promotion.

The above summary is based on a Women’s Hour interview with Tom Schuller, broadcast on Radio 4, Saturday 18th March.

Why workers aren’t benefiting from the automation of jobs…

The increasing automation of jobs could (should?) result in us all working less – but instead, most of us seem to working just as longer hours as ever, why is this – a little dose of Marxism actually goes a long way to explaining this…

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The automation of jobs – no longer limited to the manufacturing sector

What’s below is taken from the LSE blog (Jan 2015), written by David Spencer….

Technological progress has advanced continuously over the past century, pushing up productivity. But not all the gains in productivity have fed through to shorter work hours. At least in modern times, these gains have been used to increase the returns of the owners of capital, often at the cost of flatlining pay for workers.

The lack of progress in reducing time spent at work in modern capitalist economies reflects instead the influence of ideology as well as of power….

David Graeber makes the provocative claim that technology has advanced at the same time as what he calls “bullshit” or pointless jobs have multiplied. This is why we have not realised Keynes’ prediction that we’d all be working 15-hour weeks in the 21st century, as a result of technological progress.

Instead, we are living in a society where work gets created that is of no social value. The reason for this, according to Graeber, is the need of the ruling class to keep workers in work. While technology with the potential to reduce work time exists, the political challenge of a working population with time on its hands makes the ruling class unwilling to realise this potential. Working less, while feasible and desirable, is blocked by political factors.

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Ethnic inequalities in social mobility

Black and Asian Muslim children are less likely to get professional jobs, despite doing better at school, according to an official government report carried out by the Social Mobility Commission

This blog post summarizes this recent news article (December 2016) which can be used to highlight the extent of ethnic inequalities in social mobility – it obviously relates to education and ethnicity, but also research methods – showing a nice application of quantitative, positivist comparative methods.

In recent months, the low educational attainment of White British boys has gained significant attention. However, when it comes to the transition from education to employment, this group is less likely to be unemployed and to face social immobility than their female counterparts, black students and young Asian Muslims.”

White boys from poorer backgrounds perform badly throughout the education system and are the worst performers at primary and secondary school, the report said, and disadvantaged young people from white British backgrounds are the least likely to go to University.

Only one in 10 of the poorest go to university, compared to three in 10 for black Caribbean children, five in 10 for Bangladeshis and nearly seven in 10 for Chinese students on the lowest incomes.

Black children, despite starting school with the same level of maths and literacy as other ethnic groups, young black people also have the lowest outcomes in science, maths are the least likely ethnic group to achieve a good degree at university.

But after school, it is young women from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds that are particularly affected. Despite succeeding throughout education and going to university, they are less likely to find top jobs and are paid less than women from other ethnic minorities, the report concluded.

Alan Milburn, the chair of the commission said: “The British social mobility promise is that hard work will be rewarded. This research suggests that promise is being broken for too many people in our society. Britain is a long way from having a level playing field of opportunity for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background.”

The report also showed the role of parents plays a large part in performance at school, as the more they engage, the better their children do, according to the research

Two of the more specific recommendations made by the commission are

  • Schools should avoid setting, particularly at primary level, and government should discourage schools from doing so.
  • Universities should implement widening participation initiatives that are tailored to the issues faced by poor white British students and address worrying drop-out and low achievement rates among black students

Related Posts 

Ethnic minorities face barriers to job opportunities and social mobility (Guardian article from 2014) – so nothing’s changes in the last two years!

Ethnicity and Educational Achievement – The role of Cultural Factors – you might like to consider the extent to which it’s cultural factors which explain these post-education differences?

The C.V. and Racism Experiment (scroll down to 2009) – alternatively – racism in society may have something to do with these differences – this experiment demonstrated how people with ‘ethnic’ sounding names are less likely to get a response from prospective employers when they send them their C.V.s

 

Sociology in The News (5)

Care workers in Britain paid below the minimum wage

Seventeen care workers are suing contractor Sevacare for paying them below the minimum wage – The contractor had some staff in Haringey, north London, on a rate of £3.27 an hour – less than half the then minimum.

The workers were living as live-in carers, and were technically paid the minimum wage for 10 hours work a day, but were still required to live-in with the people being cared for for 24 hours a day, during which time they had to do caring duties.

Quite a useful example to illustrate the continued relevance of Marxist theory – demonstrating how employers bend the rules (‘innovating’) with their contracts to effectively pay below the minimum wage. It also demonstrates the relative powerlessness of these workers, and the importance of collective action – they put up with this for years because they needed the jobs, but eventually plucked up the courage to fight the company. If Marxist Theory is correct, the courts should side with Servacare.

David Cameron – Responsible for Fuelling War and Terror Around the World 

This is relevant to the war and conflict topic within Global Development (the topic every A level sociology teacher should be teaching IMHO) – This example is a useful illustration of how conflict and terror don’t just arise because of internal issues in foreign countries – military interventions sometimes have a role to play as well!

Britain’s intervention in Libya and the chaos and bloodshed that ensued sparked a “violent reaction” fuelling conflicts across Africa and the Middle East, as well as strengthening Isis and Al-Qaeda, according to a scathing report released by the Foreign Affairs Committee this week, which held David Cameron “ultimately responsible” for failing to stabilise Libya after the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

Following the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, opposition rebels and Islamists refused to lay down their arms and competition for territory spawned a second civil war that continues today , measing there is now a vast, mostly ungoverned space in the south of the country where jihadist groups are able to rest and resource themselves largely untroubled by external interference, allowing the smuggling of militants, weapons and refugees to neighbouring countries.

Libyan weapons have been found in more than 20 countries, while its conflict has fuelled war, insurgencies and terrorism in at least 10 other nations, and LIbya has also now become a major source of regugees which impacts on southern European countries.

Perhaps the most direct outcome was the conflict in northern Mali, where the United Nations is currently operating the deadliest peacekeeping operation in the world.

 

What Percentage of Your Life Will You Spend at Work?

I was extremely disappointed with the results returned when I typed the question above into Google – so I thought I’d do the calculations myself.

NB – I’ve limited my definition of work to mean ‘paid employment’! 

Average working hours UK

If you work for the entirety of your adult life until pensionable age in the UK then you will be engaged in some form of paid employment from the age of 18 years to of age to 68 years of age, which is an equivalent of 50 years of paid-employment.

If we take the average amount of hours worked per week, which was 39.2 hours in 2014 according to the annual survey of hours and earnings, then you will work a total of 92 120 hours in the course of your working life (based on a rough calculation of 39.2 hours *(52-5 = 47 weeks to take account of holidays)*50 years).

Expressed as terms of a percentage of your life, this 39.2 hours a week spent working is equivalent to

  • 14% of your total time over the course of a 76 year period (based on the average projected life expectancy of 76 for people born in the year 2000 according to the ONS’s National Life Tables for the United Kingdom.)
  • 23.3% of your total time during the course of a 50 year working-life period
  • 21% of your total waking hours over a 76 year lifespan, assuming 8 hours of sleep a night.
  • 35% of your total waking hours over a 50 year working-life period assuming 8 hours of sleep a night
  • 50% of your total waking hours during any given working day.

Of course the above amount of time actually spent working will vary depending on a variety of factors, not least on your income and expenditure, but also on the generosity of your parents, any inheritance you might receive, returns on investments, and any time you spend on benefits, but the most crucial variable (or combination of variables) which determines how many hours you are going to work over the course of your life is, for most people, the amount of income you earn in relation to your expenditure.

In short, the less you spend in relation to your income, then the less income you need, and the fewer hours, days, weeks, months and years (whichever is the least painful way of counting it!) you will need to work.

The maths behind this (thanks to Jacob Lund Fisker) is actually surprisingly simple – If you take home £20 000 a year, spend £18 000 and save £2000, then it will take you 9 years to save up enough to live for a year (£2000 *9 = £18000).

If you can inverse this ratio, and save £18 000 a year and get used to living off only £2000 then if you work for one year you will have saved enough to live for another 9 years.

If you look at this over the course of a working life, if you can keep the first scenario up (saving £2000/ year) then over 45 years you would save enough to live off for five years, meaning you could retire 5 years earlier, at 62 years of age. In the second example, you could work for 5 years and then retire on your savings at the age of 23, albeit on a lower income.

The first ‘hypothetical’ example is pretty close to the norm in the UK today. In 2012-13 the average personal annual income after tax for the 50th percentile income-earner was £18 700, while the average annual expenditure for the middle quintile of single person households in 2013 was £16016, leaving a potential savings capacity of approximately £2700 a year for those of middling income and expenditure. (based on the ONS survey of personal income and Equivalised income.)

The second example above is, for most of us, going to remain hypothetical because it is just too extreme. However, consider the half way situation – If, on an average annual take-home salary of £20 000 you can learn to live off £10 000 a year and save £10 000 – you could potentially only work for 25 years…. meaning you could retire at age 43.

Related Posts

How to Avoid Working for a Living

Experiments in alternative living (1) – or 5 ways to avoid spending less than £250K on housing

15 Seriously disturbing facts about your job (in which they cite 90 000 hours, which is similar to the figure I got)

Careers Advice for Teenagers (Part 1)

So you’re 17 going on 18 and it seems like the end of A levels are ages away, but for some reason your damn tutors keep haranguing you about about preparing for your future career NOW. When it comes to career readiness, there is no such thing as enough, even if you are going to university and possibly putting off the final choice of your ‘career pathway’ for another three or four years, there are still things you can be doing NOW to make you more employable in the future.

You know the sort of thing…

First of all there’s the ‘online careers survey’ which asks you to tick a load of boxes about whether you’re a ‘team player’ or like to ‘work independently’, on the basis of which you’re given a whole load of possible career options, most of which probably won’t sound that exciting. (I think these surveys may lack some validity – my ideal-career doesn’t seem to match any combination of answers I’ve tried: ‘lounging around in bed ’til about 10.00 and then strolling into to town for a Cappuccino every day’ never seems to come up as a viable option).

Once you’ve chosen a career, it’s increasingly likely that you’ll have to do some sort of work experience in that general area, not only to prove that you’ve got a basic level of competency, but also to provide some evidence of commitment to this career-path. Alternatively, you might be lucky enough to have a part-time job in area you want to go into. I say lucky, but either option sounds pretty grim to me – the former will probably involve giving up some of that holiday time to work for nothing, which is a bit of a rub, while the later probably involves doing enough hours a week while at college to make balancing paid-work, college-work, family and social commitments something of a challenge.

Incidentally, if you’re putting this phase off by going to university, you may not escape it, given that we live in the age of the unpaid-internship, especially if you want to get into any of the higher-end professions such as journalism.

(What’s also interesting here is that it’s up to you to prove commitment to a career-path before you set out on it, while your employer, in this age of flexibilised labour, is unlikely to offer you the same.)

Thirdly, and finally for now,  you need to build a C.V. – Assuming you’ve got a decent set of qualifications and some work experience, and know your name and address, the first half a page is easy enough, but then things can get difficult because filling in the rest of it requires you to have engaged in quite a few ‘C.V. Able activities. And if all you’ve done these past few years outside of school and college is flit between YouTube, twitter and Whatsapp, then you’d better get of your ass and go and join a gymnastics club, take up horse riding, volunteer with your local church, and apply for and WIN the young apprentice, even though you’re probably too old for that already.

Indeed, when it comes to work readiness, there is never such a thing as enough. This is because we live in an economically insecure world, and the cause of this insecurity is that global capital is freer  today than ever to move around the globe to seek short-term profit and then uproot at a moment’s notice to seek greater profit elsewhere. As it stands there are no global institutions capable of controlling global capital (the Nation State is declining in power) and so this global economic context of ‘Flexibilised Capitalism’ is likely to remain.

What this means is that it isn’t just NOW that you can never do enough to get ready for your that future career (which you may not even be certain about yet), but that in the future you will constantly have to update yourself to keep pace with an ever-changing labour market. Below are a few of the key reasons why you have to spend so much time and effort making yourself employable, and why you will need to continue to do so in the future…

Firstly –  ‘Technological Dislocation’ could be set to reduce the number of jobs available in the future. A recent post from The Economist summarises the situation thus….

‘Technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades… innovation has speeded up a lot in the past few years and will continue at this pace, for three reasons: the exponential growth in computing power; the progressive digitisation of things that people work with, from maps to legal texts to spreadsheets; and the opportunities for innovators to combine an ever-growing stock of things, ideas and processes into ever more new products and services. Between them, these trends might continue to “hollow out” labour markets as more and more jobs requiring medium levels of skill are automated away.”

This is the first reason you have to increase your effort to be employable now and in the future – because not only are their fewer jobs and thus more competition, it is impossible to tell what jobs are going to disappear and what new opportunities may arise (which will require retraining) because of technological change.

Secondly,  it is cheaper for employers to pay a smaller amount of employees for long hours (50-60 hours a week say) rather than to duplicate the costs of such things as training, holiday pay and pensions contributions by employing a larger workforce part-time.

This means you may well end up in a nice job that you want, but with no choice but to work hours that prevent you from having anything like a social life, let alone a family.

Thirdly, Capital today is more free-floating than ever, in other words it is free to leave this country at a moment’s (or no) notice if it can find labour cheaper somewhere else. This has already happened in the low-skilled manufacturing sector, but it could just as easily happen with higher skilled, techno and creative jobs, especially when much work today can be done in a virtual environment and the costs to Capital of uprooting and relocating are no where near as expensive when it doesn’t have to rebuild expensive ‘heavy’ factories.  The chances are, if you end up being employed by a global company (or contracting yourself out to one) your job is likely to be increasingly insecure as the years ‘progress’ – given that you are competing with millions of other employees who are just as well qualified as you from lower-income countries.

Thus, in the future, be ready for periods of unemployment as your employer moves to countries with a cheaper source of labour leaving you to seek new employment (which is likely to get harder the older you get).

Fourthly, the primary source of profit for the Capitalist Class is to encourage consumers to consume more and more products and services at an ever faster rate – thus there is pressure for technologies, software, fashions etc. become obsolete at an ever faster rate, to have an ever shorter shelf-life – thus you are unlikely to be able to rest on your laurels – The software skills you learn in university may be obsolete when you start work, and that idea that made your company a fortune today will be superseded by someone else’s idea tomorrow, leaving you in the position to have to constantly update your knowledge and generate new ideas.

Yes, all in all, sorry to say it, but I’m glad I’m not 17, even though I had hair then. And I’m also glad I’ll be retired fairly soon, spending my days drinking my real ales, smoking ma cigars and, if they still exist, leisurely leafing through some ole school broadsheets.

Don’t like the sound of your flexibilised, insecure future – then what to do???

The mainstream starting-point strategy suggests that you should position yourself into the core of highly educated, highly skilled knowledge workers. This is the best way of guaranteeing yourself a high income and relatively secure employment (and if not secure at least well-paid enough to be able to endure short periods of unemployment between contracts).

The problem with this strategy is that it is only the extreme minority of people in the UK are going to be able to get skilled up to this level – What proportion of the population? 5%, maybe 10%? Certainly no more. And even for this top 5-10%, in a globalising ‘converging world’ where more and more people are educated up to degree level (especially in Asia) there is simply going to be more competition for these types of job, so the only way for this proportion is down.

By all means, try and land one of these jobs, but in the meantime, because you’ve got more chance of not getting a decent job than you have of getting one, you should also consider how you can minimise your dependence on money and thus dependence on a salary, because you may not end up having a choice in the matter.

Related posts 

A few alternatives to working in an insecure job for the next 50 years

Is it worth doing a degree?

 

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