Should you be among the legions who have caught the quitting bug recently, a word of advice: Before you accept a new job, think like a management scholar and figure out which type of worker you are first.
Academics say there are three main types:
- The person who views work as “just a job”
- The person who views work as a “higher calling”
- The person who views work as a “career”
The classifications are not mutually exclusive, but each bucket claims roughly one-third of workers.
Like your personality, your particular bent rarely changes over time, so knowing how you relate to work could offer clues about where you should work.
Quartz invited Kira Schabram, a professor of management at the University of Washington who studies job orientation, to break down the different classifications and explain why they matter.
“My work is just a job”
For most of human history, pay has been the reason to work. Until the end of feudalism (hastened by the bubonic plague of the mid-1300s and the major labor shortages it created), people were obliged to enter the same profession as their parents. “Your parents were butchers, you were a butcher.” says Schabram. You did the job, you got money, you went to bed.
Clearly work has evolved since then, but for many, work is still, first and foremost, a transaction. These individuals have what academics call a “job orientation.” Their job might be enjoyable, but that’s not it’s main purpose: Work pays for the life people enjoy outside of it.
These workers are often focused on getting a fair deal, which has been a struggle for service workers, in the US in particular, in recent decades.
When the pandemic arrived and people rethought their relationship to work, many decided to push back against unfair conditions and low pay. A resurgence of union activity was the natural consequence, says Schabram.
“My work is my calling”
A few centuries after the bubonic plague, the idea of work as a higher calling—once reserved for priests and nuns—grew out of the Protestant Reformation. Anyone can have a calling if the work is meaningful, because meaningful work celebrates God, the reformers reasoned.
The religious connection has since dropped in many professions, but this new way of relating to work made some forms of labor inherently meaningful, Schabram explains. “Work is meaningful because you’re passionate about it.”
Purpose and meaning are buzzwords that people use at job interviews because they think it’s what hiring managers want to hear, but for about one-third of the population, the higher-calling drive is sincere.
It can also lead to burnout, disappointment, and frustration when the day-to-day job is less ideal than imagined or when industry-wide structural issues, like low pay, put pressure on professionals.
Research has shown that even people who know they’re being exploited for their passion—like social workers and nurses—continue to bend, taking on more shifts or case loads because they care so much about the job. “They lean into it and they lean into it until they just cannot,” says Schabram. If their employers don’t ease up, eventually they will snap.
“My work is not just a job, it’s a career”
After the industrial revolution, people began to think about geographic and upward social mobility for the first time. That’s how the career orientation emerged.
It manifests as employees pushing themselves at work for the sake of gaining deeper knowledge or accumulating status and wealth—or both.
But whether it’s a unique worker type might be up for debate: Schabram and some peers now theorize that people may have a higher calling or a job orientation, and simply be high or low on the career-orientation scale.
Some purpose-driven healthcare workers may want to stay on the front lines, for example, while others feel compelled to look for management or director roles. Many entrepreneurs do have a higher-calling, but they also feel driven to aim high in their career.
Companies rarely serve all
Amy Wrzesniewski, a management professor at Yale University’s School of Management, who first developed this classification system, said these orientations exist within every profession. Truck drivers, teachers, and marketers might see what they do as a higher-calling, a way to better themselves, or just a job.
Companies, however, can rarely be all things to all people. Some may emphasize purpose or a hard-driving culture over pay and work-life balance, which wouldn’t suit those with a job orientation. And other workplaces may promise meaningful work or pathways for advancement, but fail to deliver either in practice.
“It behooves employers to have a very clear understanding of why employees do the work that they do,” she adds, and to ask, “Who are we employing here?”
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