Authors Name: 
Liath Gleeson
University: 
Trinity College Dublin
Category: 
Social Sciences
Award winner

Explain and discuss the significance of paid work in society today.

This essay aims to examine the significance of paid work in contemporary society, both for the individual worker and on a collective, structural level. It is an original analysis, based on a wide range of literature drawn from various sociological fields. The essay opens by discussing the centrality of work generally in Western society throughout history, followed by a brief description of the rise in significance of paid work during the industrial revolution. The importance of paid work for the individual worker is explored first. Emphasis is placed on the importance of work for satisfying not only the individual’s material needs, but also for providing access to secondary forms of human capital, in particular education. The powerful influence of work and unemployment on the individual’s psychological and even physical wellbeing is also discussed. The significance of work for the individual regarding personal identity formation is then explored. In particular, the contemporary phenomenon of an increasingly ‘fuzzy’ distinction between ‘work’ and ‘nonwork’ identities is examined, and the possible mechanisms behind it analysed. The essay then looks at how work influences societies on a structural level. In particular, the significance of work as a social institution for the reproduction of inequalities of gender, race and class are discussed. The reproduction of gender inequality is analysed regarding both the burden placed on women through the marginalisation of unpaid domestic labour in society, and the various forms of gender discrimination that hinder female participation in the formal labour market. Reproduction of class and race inequalities is examined as one process, since they seem complementary, particularly in the US. Finally, the essay briefly mentions other areas in which work is influential, including the globalisation process, before concluding with a short discussion of possible future changes in the significance of paid work for contemporary society.