Work is the defining activity in people’s lives. In most of the world, it is a matter of survival, but work also places people in stratification systems, shapes their physical and emotional well-being, and influences their chances for social mobility. Although the term ”work” generally is used to denote the exertion of effort toward some end, economically it refers to activities oriented toward producing goods and services for one’s own use or for pay. The conception of work as a means of generating income underlies most sociological scholarship on work and most of the available statistics. Unpaid productive work, including that done in the home (indeed, homemaking is the largest occupation in the United States) and volunteer work, tends to be invisible. This article focuses primarily on paid work.


Although contemporary work differs dramatically from work in the past, the evolution of the organization of production and people’s attitudes toward work have important legacies for workers today. For much of human history, work and home lives were integrated: Most work was done at or near the home, and people consumed the products of their labor. The predecessors of the modern labor force were nonagricultural workers, including servants and skilled artisans who made and sold products. The development of industrial work supplemented human effort with machines, introduced a division of labor that assigned specialized tasks to different workers, and ushered in a wage economy. In Europe, industrial work began as cottage industry, in which middlemen brought unfinished goods to cottagers—often women and children—who manufactured products. However, the exploitation of energy sources that could fuel large machines, the growing number of displaced peasants forced to sell their labor, and the expansion of markets for industrial goods made it more economical to shift industrial work to factories. The ensuing Industrial Revolution in the West laid the foundation for modern work and created the modern labor force. Some workers in developing countries continue to do agricultural or other subsistence work; others work in industrialized sectors, although seldom with the protections advanced industrial countries afford their workers.


In developed societies, the labor force—people who are employed or are seeking paid work— includes most adults. In Western industrialized nations, it ranged in the middle 1990s from less than half the adults in Ireland, Italy, and several Middle Eastern and north African countries to around 80 percent in Denmark, Cambodia, China, Iceland, Rwanda, Solvenia, and Burundi (United Nations 1999).

The composition of the labor force is in a continual flux. Although women and children were well represented in the earliest labor force in Western countries, as industrial labor replaced agricultural work, wage workers became increasingly male. However, as the growth of jobs labeled ”women’s work” has drawn increasing numbers of women into the labor force worldwide, the labor force has become more sex-balanced. Women’s participation in the formal labor force varies cross-nationally, however. In the 1990s, according to the United Nations, women’s share of the labor force ranged from one in nine (Iran) to one in four workers (Turkey) in the Middle East and in north African countries. In Latin American countries, three to four in ten workers were female; as were 38 (Indonesia) to 48 percent (Cambodia) in southeast Asia, 38 (South Africa) to 50 percent (Burundi) in sub-Saharan Africa, and 38 (Italy, Spain, Japan) to 48 percent (Norway, Denmark, Sweden) in the advanced industrial countries.

In the United States, more than 46 percent of the labor force was female in 1998. Just as the U.S. labor force has become more diverse in gender, it has become more diverse in its racial and ethnic composition. As the ”baby bust” cohorts replace the baby boom cohorts, the U.S. labor force is aging. Smaller cohorts of young workers will lead employers to turn to other labor sources, such as immigrants, to fill low-wage, entry-level jobs.

Although child labor has all but disappeared in advanced industrial nations, children are a significant presence in the labor force in many developing countries. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) (1996, number 16), in the mid-1990s, three to four of every ten sub-Saharan African children between ages 10 and 14 worked to help support themselves and their families. In some Asian countries, more than three children in ten are in the labor force (Bangladesh, Bhutan, East Timor, Nepal), and in several Latin American countries, at least one child in four works for pay (Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, and Nicaragua). Child labor in Third World countries is partly a product of a global economy that makes impoverished children particularly attractive to Western-based multinational corporations in their worldwide search for cheap and docile workers.

Extent of paid work. The amount of time people spend at paid work has changed through the centuries. In the early decades of industrialization, adults and children often worked fourteen-hour days, six days a week. After labor organizations won maximum-hours laws and overtime pay, the average workweek shrank for European and American workers, although in some countries hours are increasing for some workers. In 1997, Japan’s workers logged more hours of work than did those in other countries for which records are available, averaging 1,990 hours annually, with U.S. workers second at 1,904 hours. Germany’s and Denmark’s workers average the fewest hours of paid work per year: 1,573 and 1,665, respectively (ILO 1998, number 25, p. 31). Declines in work hours mask a division in the extent of paid work, with growing numbers either putting in very long workweeks or working part-time. In many industrialized countries, the proportion of workers employed part-time has doubled since the 1970s; indeed, the growth in part-time jobs almost entirely accounts for the growth of total employment in industrialized countries (ILO 1996, number 17, p. 28). This growth reflects both demand-side and supply-side forces. Teenagers and women with children disproportionately opt for part-time jobs to leave time for school or unpaid family work, and employers structure some jobs as part-time to avoid paying fringe benefits. The increased number of jobs structured as part-time has caused growth in the number of persons who work part-time involuntarily.

Unemployment and underemployment.

Throughout history, people seeking adequately paid employment usually have outnumbered jobs, leaving some would-be workers unemployed or underemployed. According to the ILO (1998, number 27, p. 6), one-third of the world’s workers are underemployed (850 million persons) or unemployed (150 million persons), and unemployment is in the double digits in several countries, including Botswana, Spain, Finland, Puerto Rico, Barbados, and Poland (United Nations 1999). Globalization contributes to unemployment as multinational companies draw people in developing countries into the labor force and then put them out of work when they close plants in pursuit of cheaper labor (Dickinson 1997). In 1996, unemployment in the industrialized countries ranged from 4 percent in Norway to over 11 percent in Germany, with intermediate levels in Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (At the end of 1998, U.S. unemployment had fallen to 4.3 percent, although the rates for racial and ethnic minorities and youth were much higher.) In general, official statistics in industrialized countries underestimate unemployment by excluding ”discouraged workers” who have stopped looking because they cannot find jobs for which they qualify.

Preparing for jobs. Workers’ education and training affect the jobs they obtain. Schools teach vocational skills (including literacy and numeracy), inculcate traits that employers value (e.g., punctuality, ability to deal with bureaucracies), and provide credentials that signal the ability to acquire new skills. Vocational education provides skills and certification. In Germany, for example, vocational training is a major source of workers’ skills. In the United States, in contrast, many workers—especially those in traditionally male blue-collar jobs—acquire most of their skills on the job, whereas professionals and clerical workers acquire their skills largely before beginning employment. Jobs in advanced industrial societies—especially high-technology jobs—tend to require both more and different kinds of skills, such as precision and flexibility, as well as formal knowledge (Hodson and Parker 1988). In postindustrial societies, knowledge and technical expertise have become increasingly important for good jobs. As a growing number of jobs require at least some college, workers without a high school diploma face difficulties finding jobs that pay well and provide advancement opportunities. Moreover, workers displaced from production jobs need new skills for reemployment, and so refraining has become increasingly important.

Job outcomes. The processes that allocate workers to occupations, employers, and jobs are important because those elements strongly affect workers’ earnings. Although thousands of distinct labor markets serve different locales and occupations, to understand the job-allocation process, it is necessary to distinguish primary markets that fill jobs characterized by high wages, pleasant working conditions, the chance to acquire skills, job security, and opportunities to advance from secondary markets that fill low-paid, dead-end, low-security jobs. Firms in the primary sector fill non-entry-level jobs through internal labor markets that provide employees with ”ladders” that connect their jobs to related jobs higher in the organization. The failure of secondary-market jobs to provide job ladders that reward seniority, along with low pay and poor working conditions, encourage turnover (Gordon 1972). Both statistical discrimination and prejudice disproportionately relegate certain workers—the young, inexperienced, and poorly educated; racial and ethnic minorities; immigrants; and women—to jobs filled through secondary labor markets.


In classifying the paid work people do, social scientists refer to industries, occupations, establishments, and jobs. An industry is a branch of economic activity that produces specific goods or services. An establishment is a place where employees report for work, such as a firm or plant. An occupation refers to a collection of jobs involving similar activities across establishments, whereas a job is a set of similar work activities performed at a specific establishment. In 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau distinguished 503 ”detailed” occupations (for example, funeral director, meter reader, x-ray technician) that it grouped into six broad categories: managerial and professional specialties; technical, sales, and administrative-support occupations; service occupations; precision production, craft, and repair occupations; operators, fabricators, and laborers; and farming, forestry, and fishing occupations. The steady growth in the number of occupations since the Industrial Revolution reflects the increasing division of labor in complex societies. This elaboration of the division of labor is more visible at the job level. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles lists several thousand job titles, and the approximately 130 million employed Americans hold about a million different jobs.

Occupational structure. The distribution of workers across occupations in a society provides a snapshot of that society’s occupational structure. Comparing societies’ occupational and industrial structures at different times or across nations reveals a lot about their economic and technological development and the job opportunities available to their members. For example, in 1870, agriculture employed half of all American workers; in the 1990s, it provided jobs for about 2 percent. The effects of changing occupational and industrial structures—driven largely by the disappearance of smokestack industries and the explosion of service jobs in the United States—are expressed in the sharp decline in a worker’s chances of getting a unionized skilled production job. Hit hardest by the dwindling number of these jobs are the white men who once monopolized them. In contrast, the growing number of management jobs in the United States created a record number of managerial positions in the 1990s. This growth has helped to integrate managerial jobs by sex and race.

Job segregation by sex and race. One of the most enduring features of paid work is the differential distribution of male and female and white and minority workers across lines of work and places of employment, with minorities and white women concentrated in the less desirable jobs (Carrington and Troske 1998a, 1998b). In 1990, among all gainfully employed women in the United States, 28 percent were concentrated in just 5 of the 503 detailed occupational categories—secretary, bookkeeper, manager, clerk, and registered nurse—and over half worked in just 19 of the 503 occupations distinguished by the Census Bureau. Men, in contrast, are spread more evenly across occupations: The top five—manager/administrator, production supervisor, truck driver, sales supervisor, and wholesale sales representative—accounted for 19 percent of all employed men. However, within-occupation sex segregation (many jobs share a single occupational title) means that job segregation is considerably more pervasive than is occupational segregation.

In every country, the sexes are segregated into different jobs, although the extent of occupational sex segregation varies sharply across nations: It is highest in Middle Eastern and African nations and lowest in Asian/Pacific nations (Anker 1998). In advanced industrial nations, it correlates positively with women’s labor force participation, paid maternity leave, and the size of the wage gap (Rosenfeld and Kalleberg 1990). Levels of sex segregation in European countries reflect both postindustrial economic structures that concentrate women in sales and service jobs and adherence to norms of gender equality. Independent of these forces, customarily male production jobs remain outside the reach of most women, and women continue to dominate clerical occupations (Charles 1998).

The last thirty years has witnessed worldwide declines in occupational sex segregation (Anker 1998). Integration occurs primarily through women’s entry into customarily male occupations rather than the reverse. Falling levels of occupational sex segregation can mask ongoing job-level segregation (Reskin and Roos 1990). Training workers for nontraditional jobs and enforcing antidiscrimination laws and affirmative-action regulations appear to be the most effective remedies for reducing sex segregation.

Occupations and jobs also are segregated by race. For example, before World War II, American blacks were concentrated in farming, service, and unskilled-labor jobs in the secondary sector of the economy, such as domestic worker, porter, and orderly. War-induced labor shortages opened the door to a wider range of jobs for blacks, and antidiscrimination regulations (especially Title VII of 1964 Civil Rights Act) further expanded blacks’ opportunities. As a result, racial segregation across occupations has declined sharply in the United States since 1940, especially among women. There is little systematic cross-national research on job segregation or job discrimination by race, although scattered studies document both around the world. For example, Moroccans are excluded from semiskilled jobs in the Netherlands, West Indians face discrimination in Canada, and Vietnamese and the aboriginal populations encounter it in Australia (ILO 1995, number 12, pp. 29-30).

Workers’ experience and preferences influence where they work and what they do, but at least as important are the operation of labor mar-kets—the mechanisms that match workers to jobs and set wages—and employers’ preferences and personnel practices. Sociologists have documented the importance of personal networks for workers’ employment outcomes (e.g., Fernandez and Weinberg 1997). Employers favor the use of social networks to recruit workers because of their efficiency, low cost, and ability to provide information unavailable through formal sources. However, because people’s acquaintances tend to be of the same sex and race, recruiting through employees’ networks effectively excludes sex- and race-atypical workers.

Layoffs and Displacement. U.S. data for the 1980s and 1990s indicate that trends in job displacement rates roughly parallel those for unemployment. Between 1993 and 1995, 12 to 15 percent of workers lost a job because their companies closed, their jobs were cut, or work was slack. Depending on economic conditions, between 25 and 40 percent of displaced workers remain jobless one to three years later, and reemployed workers typically earn less than they did in their previous jobs (Economic Report of the President 1999).


People seek jobs that maximize extrinsic rewards— income, prestige, the chance for promotion, and job security (Jencks et al. 1988)—as well as intrinsic rewards—satisfaction and autonomy. Earnings are the primary incentive for most workers. However, pay differs sharply across individuals and social groups. Substantial racial, sex, and ethnic inequality in pay characterize all industrial societies, although their extent depends on whether countries permit unequal pay for equal work and the degree to which workers are segregated into unequally paying jobs on the basis of sex, race, or ethnicity. In the United States, the 1963 Equal Pay Act that outlawed wage discrimination by race, national origin, and sex and declining occupational segregation by race have reduced the racial gap in earnings among men and almost eliminated it among women. The disparity in earnings between the sexes has declined more slowly because of the resilience of sex segregation. Hence, in 1998, women employed full-time year-round earned 74 percent of the annual earnings of their male counterparts. The wage gap varies across nations (and across occupations and industries within countries). In the first half of the 1990s, pay inequality was lowest in Australia, Egypt, Kenya, Jordan, and New Zealand, where women averaged about 80 percent of what men earned, compared to a low of just 60 percent in Korea (ILO 1997, number 22). Factors that can reduce the wage gap among fulltime workers include equalizing the sexes’ educational attainment and labor-market experience, creating sex-integrated jobs, and implementing pay systems that compensate workers for the worth of a job without regard to its sex composition.

Occupational prestige. Social standing is conferred on persons partly on the basis of their jobs. In fact, social scientists have treated the distinction between blue-collar and white-collar jobs as a rough proxy for workers’ social status. However, to capture the effects of one’s type of work on one’s social status, more sophisticated ways to measure occupational prestige are needed. The most commonly used is the Duncan Socioeconomic Index (SEI)(Duncan 1961), which assigns a score to each occupation on the basis of its incumbents’ average educational and income levels. The occupational status hierarchy is quite stable over time and across cultures (Treiman 1977). Within societies, the occupational standing of workers is highly stratified. In the United States, for example, most workers have occupations with relatively low SEI scores.

Intrinsic rewards: job satisfaction. In advanced industrialized countries, many workers see a job as a place to find fulfillment, self-expression, and satisfaction. Workers in routine jobs try to imbue them with challenge or meaning, in part by creating a workplace culture. These adaptations contribute to the high levels of satisfaction Americans report with their jobs. Nonetheless, not all jobs are satisfying, and not all workers are satisfied. On the assumption that dissatisfied workers are less productive, employers in the United States and other advanced industrialized countries have devised strategies such as workplace democracy, job-enrichment programs, and ”quality circles” to enhance job satisfaction. According to Lincoln and Kalleberg (1990), however, Japanese and German workers, who show the lowest levels of satisfaction, are among the world’s most productive.


In expanding the factory system, the Industrial Revolution separated work and family, creating a division of labor that mandated domestic work for women and market work for men. Although women increasingly hold paid jobs, paid employment has not exempted them from primary responsibility for domestic work. Role overload and its concomitant stresses are risks for all workers, but especially for employed mothers, who accounted for 70 percent of married mothers and 60 percent of single mothers in the United States in 1996. Women have adapted by working part-time, sacrificing leisure time, renegotiating the domestic division of labor in their families, cutting out some domestic tasks, and purchasing more services. (The trend toward purchasing more services has fueled the growth of service jobs in fast-food chains, child care, and cleaning services and thus has increased the demand for low-wage workers.) What employed parents want most is flexible scheduling (Glass and Estes 1997), although organizational pressure prevents some from taking advantage of it when it is available (Hochschild 1997).

Just as paid work competes with workers’ domestic obligations, the demands of family life interfere with workers’ ability to devote themselves entirely to their jobs. Thus, employers have two incentives to reduce work-family conflicts: reducing absenteeism and turnover and increasing workers’ productivity and organizational commitment (Glass and Estes 1997). Many employers in advanced industrial societies have provided some of their employees with assistance with child care. The governments of most advanced industrialized countries have mandated programs such as parental leave, state-run nurseries, and guaranteed benefits for part-time workers. Among the 152 member nations of the ILO, only two advanced industrial countries provide no paid maternity leave: New Zealand and the United States (ILO 1998, number 24, pp. 18-19). Employers’ increasing reliance on female workers and politicians’ desire for women’s support should bring more family-friendly policies and practices in the twenty-first century.


Control of work. As Marx recognized, whenever different actors control the tools of production and perform work, control over the work process is potentially a matter of contention. Employers have relied on a variety of tactics to control the labor process: paternalism, close supervision, embedding control into the technology of work, deskilling work, and bureaucratic procedures such as career ladders (Edwards 1979). Workers have resisted more or less effectively through collective action, including attempts to create a monopoly of their skills or the supply of labor. At the end of the twentieth century, several factors had given employers the upper hand in the struggle for control, including the decline of labor unions in Western industrialized societies (ILO 1997, number 22, p. 7), the disappearance of lifetime job protection in formerly communist societies, an increasing technological capacity to monitor workers electronically, access to a global ”reserve labor army,” and the use of nonstandard employment relationships (see below).

Technological change. The history of work is a chronicle of technological innovation and its transformation of the production of goods and services. Employers invest in technology to increase productivity, contain labor costs, and control how work is done. According to some observers (e.g., Braverman 1974), employers seek technical advances in order to reduce workers’ control over the labor process and employ less skilled and thus cheaper labor. Some analysts see technological change as a threat to skilled jobs; others see technology as creating more of those jobs. The development of microelectronic technology has brought this debate to the fore.

Innovations in microprocessor technology have permitted advances in information processing and robotics that are revolutionizing the production of goods and services. Robots work around the clock, perform hazardous tasks, and have low operating costs. Although technical advances enhance jobs, they also subject workers to technological control (an estimated 80 percent of U.S. workers are electronically monitored, for example [ILO 1998, no. 24, p. 25]) and, by improving productivity, lead to job losses. In industrialized nations, for example, microelectronic technology has eliminated some unskilled jobs and facilitated work transfers that shift tasks from paid workers to consumers such as banking transactions. By making it possible to export jobs to cheaper labor markets, technology has reallocated jobs from the workers who once performed them to lower-paid workers in other parts of the world. Although technological change has created jobs, it has eliminated more job— particularly less-skilled ones—than it has created and has eroded skills in middle- to low-skill jobs such as clerical work (Hodson and Parker 1988). Its creation of new highly skilled jobs has contributed to the economic polarization of workers and spurred the migration of well-educated workers from developing to advanced industrial countries (Hodson 1997).

The globalization of work. Although segments of the economy such as service work are organized locally, production work increasingly is organized in a global assembly line (Dickinson 1997). For jobs in which technology preempts skill, multinational corporations’ worldwide pursuit of low-wage docile labor and microelectronic technology and cheap transportation reduce the friction associated with moving production around the globe. As a result, there has been a steady exportation of jobs from industrialized countries to the Pacific Rim, Latin America, and the Caribbean, where labor is cheap and tractable and labor laws are lenient. This redistribution of manufacturing jobs from advanced industrial nations to developing nations—fueled by the growth of multinational corporations—has given birth to an international division of labor in which the United States and other advanced industrial nations have become postindustrial societies that specialize in producing services rather than goods, while workers in less developed countries manufacture products, often under unsafe conditions. For example, between 1980 and 1993, semi-industrialized and industrialized countries in the Americas and Europe lost 30 to 70 percent of their jobs in the textile and footwear industries, while African and Asian countries have experienced astronomical job growth in those industries (ILO 1996, vol. number 18). Between 1970 and 1990, the number of textile and footwear jobs doubled, tripled, or more in Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Malaysia where production workers earn from one-fifth to one-half as much as do their counterparts in advanced industrial countries. Meanwhile job growth in developing countries leads to the disproportionate employment of teenagers and young adult women, who work for lower pay than do adult men.

Just as jobs move in search of cheaper workers, workers move in search of better-paying jobs. Often, however, the outcome of this migration is low-skilled, low-paid employment in domestic or service work. However, skilled technical and professional jobs also draw workers in global migration streams. In the mid-1990s, according to the ILO (1995, number 13), 70 million immigrants— most from the Third World—resided in countries other than their nations of birth. The globalization of competition among employers has made workers on different continents into competitors for jobs, held down wages, and militated against campaigns to improve working conditions in Third World establishments while eroding job security in First World production facilities (Hodson and Parker 1988; Dickinson 1997).

The externalization of work and the erosion of jobs. By the middle of the twentieth century, the normative employment relationship between employers and workers had become standardized in many industrialized societies. This standard employment arrangement typically involves the exchange of labor by a worker for a fixed rate of pay (hourly wages or a weekly, monthly, or annual salary) from an employer, with the labor performed on a preset schedule—usually full-time— at the employer’s place of business, under the employer’s control, and often with the shared expectation of continued employment. However, to cut costs and enhance flexibility, employers are increasingly ”externalizing” work in terms of physical location administrative control and the duration of employment (Pfeffer and Baron 1988).

This externalization is seen in the increasing number of persons working for pay at home and the growth of nonstandard employment relationships (Barker and Christensen 1998). Neither homework nor nonstandard employment relations are new. Only after unions won the right to bargain collectively and statutory rights protecting workers did homework and nonstandard employment relations give way to standard employment relationship in advanced industrialized countries. In the 1990s, however, the trend seemed to have reversed. In 1995, for example, eight million Americans, at least two million Europeans, six million Filipinos, and one million Japanese worked for pay at home. Millions of these home workers telecommute (ILO 1998, number 27, p. 23). Many workers, especially women, opt for homework as a way to earn wages while supervising their children ( Jurik 1998). However, part of the price of this flexibility is a lack of protection by health and safety regulations or maximum-hours rules, and these workers are outside the reach of organizing efforts. In addition, whether homework involves children is difficult to monitor even in countries strongly opposed to child labor (ILO 1995).

Work is externalized in a second way: Firms contract with individuals for specific duties (independent contractors) or with intermediary organizations that employ workers rather than directly employing all the persons who do work for them. Although contracting has long been common for some forms of work (e.g., agricultural labor), employers around the world are increasingly contracting out jobs formerly done by their own employees in everything from construction and manufacturing to human resources and security. Worldwide, more than one in four service workers are contract laborers. By outsourcing these functions to contract workers or independent contractors, employers avoid the obligation to provide long-term employment and short-circuit protective labor laws that apply to employees. Other nonstandard employment relationships include temporary work and part-time work, both of which disproportionately employ women, members of racial and ethnic minorities, and young workers.

The growth of nonstandard employment relationships has led some observers to predict an end to work organized through standard employment relations or the bifurcation of employment relations, with firms hiring core workers who enjoy the benefits of standard employment and creating explicitly temporary connections with peripheral workers who lack benefits and job security (Smith 1997; Leicht 1998). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of U.S. workers in nonstandard work is slowly increasing (Barker and Christensen 1998). In summary, employment relations must be seen as falling on a continuum from long-term attachments under bureaucratic control to weak connections of uncertain duration (Pfeiser and Baron 1988). Most research on work and occupations in industrial societies has dealt with the former end of the continuum. Technological change and globalization are shifting jobs-even in industrial countries—toward the latter end.

Next post:

Previous post: