The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty
Book Review by W. Chris Briddick
Blustein, D. L. (2019). The importance of work in an age of uncertainty: The eroding work experience in America. New York: Oxford University Press. (288 pages)
Powerful, thoughtful writing says something about the soul of its author. Such is the case in the most recent book by David Blustein entitled The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty: The Eroding Work Experience in America. This may well be the best piece of writing in Blustein’s career thus far, with both head and heart deeply embedded in its text. This endeavor centers on the voices of individuals interviewed by the author and the research team at the Boston College Working Project (BCWP). The personal stories of Blustein and others provide a foundation of lived experience for the significant case he makes. The objective in writing this book is clearly fulfilled, as readers gain a better understanding of how people are being impacted by work in an era where uncertainty and anxiety reign. This is not a book of definite, clear-cut answers or solutions but rather a thoughtful, well-constructed case of the current state of the world of work and a framework for how to face its critical issues.
Blustein’s audience is essentially anyone interested in the rapid changes and inequalities in the world of work. This of course includes economists, academics, organizational psychologists and other consultants, public policy professionals, as well as individuals in relevant leadership roles and across various levels of higher education.
Blustein structures his message by making a case for the significance of a topic with support from professional literature. Each chapter includes
- the voices of individual clients from the BCWP to emphasize his points
- a psychological view of the main topic
- a concluding thought on how we might better address the related challenges.
Blustein's topics are approached and built upon a Psychology of Working framework They cover areas such as
- the fundamental role of work in survival
- work as a means of achieving a sense of power, of allowing an individual to establish social connections and to make a societal contribution, and to ultimately engage in self-determination
- unemployment and its impact on the psychological wellbeing of individuals
- the intersection of relationships and work, (of particularly note: care-giving)
- oppression and harassment - two of the most significant barriers faced by some workers.
A strength of this book, beyond the topics themselves, is how Blustein boldly takes on so many significant issues faced by some workers. His earnest and informed perspective is quite powerful in addressing these issues and others raised in weaving in his own work, as well as the work of other scholars. Issues related to social class, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, etc., take center stage as, in spite of every positive effort, oppression, marginalization, and harassment persist in the workplace.
The author also provides an excellent historical overview of how our awareness of the significance of relationships in our lives has emerged over time. Most certainly some of this very history proved significant in the development of Blustein’s own Relational Theory of Working. The discussion here rolls through critical topics such as relationships that involve significant power differentials, the struggles of balancing work and family responsibilities including caregiving, the internalization of relationships, and, finally, the value of networking and the instrumental support provided by others in our lives.
Blustein devotes significant discussion to being without work, providing an excellent overview of unemployment and its impact on the psychological wellbeing of individuals dealing with unemployment. This section of the book also gives the reader a detailed view of what a job search might look like for someone dealing with long term unemployment. Blustein also provides comments from clients he and his colleagues interviewed in their work with the Boston College Working Project, related to what society might need to do in trying address the challenges of unemployment, assisting those in need in finding suitable, stable employment.
In his final chapter, Blustein addresses the necessity of being able to work with dignity and creating opportunities for those in need of work. He notes that the arrival of precarious work has short-circuited any sense of security, joy, or meaningfulness for some workers, leading them perhaps to search for meaning in places in their lives outside of work. Unpredictability, inequality, loss of one’s personal dreams, and managing the stress and despair of the current world of work round out a list of challenges individuals face. A far too-easy, yet obvious critique of this book is that some might find it highly idealistic with its possibilities too far out of bounds for the world we live in (and its related present political, economical and educational system). However, professionals who believe it is time to turn attention toward those at the heart of any economy, namely those who are doing the majority of its work, will want to read this book.
Offering suggestions from the personal to a more macro level, Blustein's “The Importance of Work” illuminates a most ambitious, progressive pathway forward with his familiar bold intelligence and compassion. It may well signal the dawn of a new age of work. Thanks to David Blustein, hope awaits in those first few steps ahead.
William C. Briddick is currently an Associate Professor of Counseling and Human Development teaching in the Counseling and Human Resource Development program at South Dakota State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org