This essay by Hans L Zetterberg is based on the findings of the international research project "Jobs in the 1980s" chaired by Daniel Yankelovich. The essay has been published and copyrighted in Bo Ekman (editor), Dignity at Work, Stockholm: Streifert and Co Bokfφrlag HB, 1985.


The Will to Work and the Invisible Contract


In the industrial countries of the Western world, work is being revalued and upgraded. In the beginning of the 1980s, some thirty to forty percent of the working population in the United States, Britain, West Germany, Sweden and Israel reported in a survey that, during the previous five years, their jobs had been redesigned, changed through the introduction of new technology, or replaced with entirely new jobs that did not exist five years before.

The pace of change at the workplace is very rapid. These new or newly restructured jobs are generally reported to be better than the old ones. They allow the worker more freedom and discretion in carrying out his or her work, and they encourage the development of individual potential. In the main, research findings on this score run contrary to the common assumption of Marxist scholars that jobs are getting more controlled from above, more subdivided, and more void of human content. The contrary is true. The worker’s discretion on the job is increasing. Also, in an era when economic performance is bleak and there are too few jobs to go around, much effort is being put into existing jobs, with the result that they are improving and becoming more interesting.

A hundred years ago — and on the authority of the great economist Ricardo — a country’s (or company’s) competitive advantage was thought to rest on its having raw material and cheap labor. Sweden, for example, was intrinsically rich with all the minerals and all the timber one could wish. It was thought that we would prosper as long as the wages of miners and lumberjacks remained reasonably low.

We are now in an entirely different ballgame. Today, the availability of raw material and cheap labor does not give a very significant advantage. What counts more is access to capital and to technology. This lesson was brought home by Japan, the most successful of the postwar economies, which has neither raw material of its own, nor cheap labor. But it has technology and capital — the latter at times supported by an undervalued yen.

What makes Japan unique in postwar capitalism is also its marriage of high technology and an unflagging willingness to work hard. The will to work has always figured in the folklore about the rise and decline of nations and corporations. In every nation and at any period in modern history one can document a tendency of the older generation to claim that it has worked harder than the younger one. And most people entertain the notion that the peoples of some regions or tribes work harder than others. The saying "Southerners are lazy’’ is found in many countries.

"Will to work" is not one of the factors dealt with by mainstream economists. They talk about the price of labor, and they treat wages as the one and only factor that drives us to work more or less hard. A very striking factor in our research, however, is that in most countries there is little immediate correlation between good pay and hard work. Most reports from workplaces indicate that there is little or no difference in pay between those who work hard and efficiently and those who do not. This came almost as a shock to the economists in our research teams.

It is generally agreed that the ideal work is long-term and all-round. "Long-term" means that the daily extra effort in return for a little extra cash is less important than the lasting commitment to give the best hours of the day during the best years of one’s life to the chosen place of work in return for a lasting income. "All-round" means that work is much more than earning a living. Our work gives us a sense of time, it adds to our knowledge, it provides our identity, it puts our perception of reality to a test, it affords experiences of competence and potency, it teaches us about our interdependence with others in a common task, it enriches the store of common experience, it adds to the cohesion and solidarity within a society. All-round means a full and rich life on the job, and not only in spare time.

The will to work is put into focus by the combination of jobs that are moving toward high discretion and great psychological rewards, and jobs that pay the same irrespective of how one uses one’s discretion. In Japan, the older generation gives its discretionary effort to the company, but younger Japanese are increasingly reluctant to do so. The Japanese researchers called this phenomenon the "Europeazation of the labor force". Seen in a perspective of some fifteen to twenty years, this will have an adverse effect on Japan’s competitive position. It will have little or no effect within the next few years.

We have learned only recently to measure the will to work and to compare nations, communities, and corporations on this score. The comparisons we have made in our research include three quite separate measurements that have only one thing in common: they get at the non-economic aspects of the will to work. The three aspects are:

1. The will to work that originates in an imbued work ethic, for example, the Puritan, or Protestant, work ethic.

2.The will to work that originates in a good match between job designs and the values of working people.

3. The will to work that originates in what we call an invisible contract over and above the written labor contract stipulating pay and hours.

The implanted work ethic

Some people have an inner need to do a good job regardless of pay. Their religion, upbringing, and education have imbued them with a work ethic. These are the people who feel that they absolutely must do things well. The famous Protestant work ethic is an example of an implanted urge to do a good job for its own sake, not for the sake of worldly gain, pay, or honor.

The prevalence of an implanted work ethic differs greatly between countries. In centers where tradition would have us expect to find a strong work ethic — Germany, the home of the Lutherans, and Britain, the home of the Methodists — very few people today in our interviews say that they "have an inner need to work hard regardless of pay". Japan, the United States, and Sweden show higher figures. The United States figure is high enough — about forty percent — so that a discussion has started there about "putting the work ethic to work". Since the implanted work ethic is something that has its roots in upbringing, there is not much managers can do about it. The most conscious efforts to make use of it are reported in the hiring practices of some Japanese firms operating in the United States. They try to choose for their American work force people with an intrinsic interest in quality work and in fast, hard work.

Closing the mismatch between values and jobs

In looking at maps of values from different countries, one can discern three broad categories of values.

It is with jobs as with marriages: what is a mismatch for one may be a good match for another. One person may desire a husband or wife who is stylish and elegant. He places less importance on emotional depth and intelligence. Another puts a premium on deep emotional contact and attaches less importance to external attributes. Depending on what values we hold, certain jobs will be mismatched and others will be matched to us.

Sustenance-oriented people give their best to jobs with steady remuneration and complete job security. The older blue-collar generation of industrial workers fits into this category. Here, one is willing to forego other amenities and opportunities if there is enough to provide for self and family.

People with outer-directed values of material success give their best to jobs with incentive pay, advancement opportunities, and clear and fair rules for promotion.

People with inner-directed values of expressivism give their best to jobs that allow for personal, not just material, growth. They give their best when the job allows for creativity and self-development.

The exact percentage of mismatched people varies between countries: forty-nine percent in the United States, forty-two percent in Israel, forty-seven percent in West Germany, sixty-three percent in the United Kingdom, forty-four percent in Sweden, and sixty-eight percent in Japan.

The mismatches are pronounced among the young — those under thirty. It seems as if society has not redesigned its jobs at the same pace as values have changed. In all countries, the young with inner-directed values are frequently mismatched.

A good match between your values and your work is a daily reward. A fortunate half of the working population in the advanced industrial democracies enjoys this experience They agree with one of our respondents, who in no way would work without pay since she carried the burden of family support, but nevertheless said, "I have this job that is so good to me, top of it I also get paid." Where you have a good match between values and jobs you also have an automatic will to work. Our values motivates us on the job.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many people with the new values of expressivism gave up on their workplaces and thought they could only realize their values during leisure — by being close to nature, walking in the mountains, sailing on the deep waters, meeting with close friends. These values were a drain on the working life. In the 1980s, the story is different. People with these values are increasingly looking for work that allows them to live out their values on the job rather than outside it. And they love the new jobs with their freedom of decision and room for creativity. They also look with favor on the many mall computers they operate on these jobs. They can readily see the computers as extensions of their personality: to learn to use the computer is like learning to play the piano — you can express more of yourself, and so much better, with such a tool.

Those countries and companies that can quickly teach their managers to be aware of differences in values, allocate personnel accordingly, and redesign jobs to fit the various values will win the competitive race of the 1980s and 1990s. The burden lies mainly on those engineers and organization officers who shape and design jobs.

The invisible contract

Practically everywhere we interviewed, we found bits and pieces of what we came to call "the invisible contract." Here, we are not talking about a willingness to work because the job allows you to live out your values, nor are we talking about an ethical commitment to work hard irrespective of the reward. We are talking about a give-and-take of a noneconomic kind that is more or less developed at every place of work.

The usual visible work contract states in writing that I put in so-and-so many hours for so-and-so many dollars. The invisible contract says that I help you because I know that you would help me. I care about my fellow workers, and my fellow workers care about me. I am loyal to my company and my company is loyal to me.

The invisible contract fares badly in many countries. In Britain, it is poorly developed, and workers may withhold efforts above the minimum required by the formal contract. In Germany, the workers feel exploited and do not want to give much of themselves. In Japan, there are growing signs that the invisible contract is abused and that workers feel cheated. Good invisible contracts were found in Sweden. Swedes have a high rate of absenteeism, but when on the job the they give it a lot.

Good invisible contracts are more common at small work-places than at large ones, more common among white-collar than blue-collar workers, more common in the private sector than in the public sector.

The small workplace can develop a good invisible contract almost automatically. As with a hockey or soccer team, or fishing and hunting teams of olden days, there should be no more than seven to eleven members to a work group. As saying goes, Jesus Christ tried with twelve, and that proved to be one too many.

But good invisible contracts can develop also in large organizations, provided they have a good leadership sensitive to issues of values, interpersonal relations, and performance.

We can all quote examples of leaders in business or politics who have the ability to rally their fellows to marshal their best efforts in a common cause; leaders who clearly define a common goal and who can imbue others with a sense of purpose so that each feels his contribution is important; leaders who can rouse others to draw — voluntarily — on untapped resources. Such leadership is an elusive but potent force in the shaping of the invisible contract.

One leader in another area of endeavor may provide some clues as to how he inspires a work team — albeit on a small scale, with a very special cast of workers, and in a rarefied field.

Ingmar Bergman has long known the secret of stirring his co-workers to strive for excellence and to surmount conflicts in the interest of a common goal. How many men would even contemplate bringing together in the same project a number of their ex-wives and lovers on the premise that they will work in harmony and deliver optimal performances? What is his secret?

Bergman is not only an accomplished director of motion pictures; he is also an intuitive guide of human potential. Frictions that might plausibly be expected to arise on the set are dissipated by an even more compelling force. To each member of his cast Bergman seems able to give a unique gift: to gain access to the undiscovered and richest lodes within one’s being and be guided in mining them to one’s own delight. This is a reward of an entirely different quality and power than conventional praise or tangible compensations for performance. It spurs one to the highest level of accomplishment because of the sheer pleasure in growing as an adult, as a craftsman, as an artist, and as a professional. And, unlike traditional incentives, the effects are long-lasting and cumulative.

And so Bergman can orchestrate his players so that each strives to summon the finest tones out of his own instrument — himself — in the creation of the final total product.