Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Skating on Thin Ice: A Comparison of Work Values and Job Satisfaction in CEE and EU Countries (1)

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Skating on Thin Ice: A Comparison of Work Values and Job Satisfaction in CEE and EU Countries (1)

Article excerpt

In recent decades, the developed world has seen important changes in the area of human labor. Economic activity, originally a matter of terrestrial pain and strain, turned into positive behavior, enriching human life on a mass scale. Postmodern society, according to Ronald Inglehart (1990), replaces the values of starvation with the values of security, and unleashes the opportunity for the "cognitive mobilization" of workers. The change in the nature of work itself, as well as related work values, is part of a comprehensive cultural change linked to economic development and leading people toward post-materialist values, individual life-styles, and civic participation.

At the same time, however, work has become scarcer and many people have become worse off as a result of unemployment.

In the globalization process, unskilled work moves away from the developed countries into the poorer countries, where wage costs are negligible. The share of work that involves the intrinsic values of human development is far from being a mass phenomenon. Increasingly, there are fewer and fewer jobs: "In fact, from being a burden, work has become a privilege" (Dahrendorf 1990:144). Paid work has become a basic status-forming activity of Western civilization. However, it brings not only satisfaction, but also risks, which have a stressful effect on people's lives (Beck 1992; Beck 2000).

Both the positive and negative features of recent developments in the world of work are present in contemporary societies. Within such a general framework, the transformation of political and economic systems in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE hereafter) produced additional problems. The legacies of the communist regime lie deep, and the expectations of the population concerning social protection are high. The pressures put on work performance and job mobility continue to be weak, and deficiencies in work habits and a reluctance to be flexibility continue in large sections of the labor force. Owing to such restraints, the use of the labor force remains sub-optimal.

During the period of economic reform in the CEE countries, labor market problems were described exclusively in the vocabulary and methodology of mainstream economics. Therefore, there was little place for inspecting the human values related to economic behavior and work. There are several causes for this: (1) values (more specifically, the hierarchy of preferences) are taken for granted and have no standing in neoclassical economics; (2) measuring human values is rather problematic because one has to rely on subjective data; (3) there are no time series, which would enable comparisons with the communist past; (4) there is no research tradition in the CEE countries that would facilitate this type of inquiry, for example, economic sociology, social anthropology, or cultural studies.

By contrast, no small amount of attention is paid to the institutional surroundings and the social dimension of work in the West. Scholars are trying to unveil the current qualitative changes in work and jobs relative to a general value change, whether from materialism to post-materialism, from national economies to globalization, or from social networks to an atomized social web. There are indeed important branches of economic sociology and socioeconomics that do deal with the social settings of human work (Yankelovich et al. 1985; Tilly and Tilly 1994; Kallerberg 1977; Sennett 1998; Swedberg 2003).

Paradoxically, the attention given to economic values is less in precisely those places where their importance is higher. The economic transition cannot be accomplished without involving the value and cultural dimension too. In fact, it has instead been overburdened with assumptions about the "natural" behavior of people, which in this case means the equivalent of "market" behavior. Macroeconomics preceded microeconomics (within neoclassical economics), the neoclassical approach preceded the institutional one (within economics), economics preceded sociology (within the social sciences), and the description of the current state preceded any explanation that would take roots and manners (within sociology) into account. …

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