Business Columns & Blogs

You love work – does it love you?

News of Steve Jobs’ decision to step aside as Apple’s chief executive officer prompted speculation about what even more grim news might follow.

It wasn’t just awareness of Jobs’ medical history that provoked such thoughts. There’s no such thing as a good cancer to have, but pancreatic cancer – which is what Jobs has battled – is a leading contender for the worst kind.

Beyond that, though, was the sense that it would require something truly dire and insurmountable for Jobs to give up a position with a company with which he is so closely identified.

Many CEOs relinquish the jobs voluntarily due to burnout or because they truly do want to “pursue other interests” or “spend more time with their family.” That never seemed to be a likely scenario for Jobs.

So on this day before Labor Day, it’s worth considering the topic of connection with work, career and employer, even for those who toil at pay grades and job descriptions far removed from the lofty levels of a corporate CEO.

We identify and define ourselves through an intricate web of affiliations, interests and loyalties: Our families and friends, our neighborhoods, our communities, our states, our nation, the schools we attended, the churches we worship at, the political parties we vote for, the artists and entertainers we like, our ethnic and national heritages, the organizations we join, the hobbies and leisure activities we enjoy, even the stores we shop at and the brands we buy.

A huge component of that self-identity has been our work life – the job we have, the career we’ve trained for, the company that employs us. A certain degree of attachment would be understandable if only for the amount of time we spend at work and the fact that the pay we receive makes so much else of our lives possible.

For some people, work is just somewhere to go for eight hours a day; the specifics of the job and the employer are largely unimportant, so long as the paychecks clear.

But for many others, work represents a calling, an opportunity to exercise one’s skills in interesting and valuable activities. Getting compensated for such activity? So much the better.

In such positions, people feel tremendous pride and incredible loyalty, even if they try to hide it. Boeing workers may gripe unceasingly about the company and its management, but disparage their work or the product they build and see what kind of reaction you get. In the tech realm, employee zeal for what their companies are hoping to accomplish approaches true-believer status.

But loyalty to and identification with a job or an employer has been sorely tested through the recession. Between pay cuts, furloughs, temporary and permanent layoffs, the constant pressure to do more with less, the broken connection between performance and reward for top executives – not to mention discouraging long-term trends such as outsourcing and offshoring – employees are questioning the wisdom of investing so much of their emotional capital in their work.

Whether that persists will be an interesting trend to track if or when the recession ends (yeah, yeah, we know the economists say it’s over. Does it feel that way to you?). Americans have a propensity to focus on what’s ahead and to be relatively upbeat about their prospects, so memories of the recent unpleasantness may be washed away in an era of relative stability and prosperity.

But the experience of this recession, especially for those who saw their jobs wiped out, may have been deep and broad enough to permanently alter attitudes about worklife – and that has implications for employers. Lots of people say they love their jobs, their careers, even the companies they work for. But any veteran of an unrequited relationship can testify those rarely work out well.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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