I never paid attention in my sociology lectures at university. Drab lank-haired depressive middle-aged men muttering into their polyveldt shoes, nursing an unwashed mug of Nescafé while dribbling about power and alienation, the lecturers were hardly inspiring.
On reflection, these downtrodden peddlers of modes of alienation and ennui were fighting for survival in the greed-is-good 1980s, when economic rationalism was in its ascendance.
I now regret not straining harder to fully appreciate Max Weber and Emile Durkheim because understanding the importance of power in the workplace is critical when thinking about career development. If you follow the career prescriptions and advice proferred online, in self-help books and in the media generally, you’d be forgiven for thinking that power differentials do not exist in the workplace. You’d be forgiven, but you’d be wrong.
These days, when I read careers advice offered unsolicited and aimed at the general public, I find most commonly that the authors rarely if ever give any consideration to people’s circumstances, their backgrounds and their amount of power in the labour market. In the rush for an instagramable epigram, or a concise tweet, we get platitudes and oversimplifications.
Worse than that, it is clear that these injunctions to quit, do what you want to do, follow your passion, and most recently swap quiet quitting for loud resignations, fail to consider the amount of power that most workers have – or rather do not have.
At the time of writing, I saw a report that the Albanese government is looking to reform “uber-style” contracts that have been described as “cancer” on the Australian economy, driving down wages. The point is, the gig economy in many sectors has driven down wages and stripped workers of protections and fundamental features of decent work such as paid leave. It has also trashed the idea of job security.
In other words, what we have seen in the Australian labour market and around the world is a significant change in the power balance in favour of employers. Too frequently those employers have failed to use this power responsibly and equitably, and instead have acted as though workers stand between management and shareholders as an impediment.
Work has become less secure across many sectors. With the rise of uncritically accepted performance management metrics based more often than not on exceedingly dodgy foundations, workers’ job security is predicated on them jumping through whatever hoop du jour has been cooked up. Too often these hoops have been designed not so much because they genuinely reflect role-related performance, but rather to boost metrics that lead to shareholder performance and returns.