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Why do we work and what do we get out of it?

Why do we work and what do we get out of it?

By Yoko Ishikura

The gender gap in work has been discussed often in Japan and elsewhere. I find the policies that Abe Shinzo’s administration is to propose such as “equal pay for equal work”, “no distinction between regular and non-regular workers” and “cap on overtime work” important and meaningful to improve the status of women at work in Japan.

Gender issues in jobs in Japan

I also see organizations which consist of private and public sector members to develop proposals and recommendations to seek equal opportunities for women to demonstrate their talents and to have more responsibilities. They help set the level-playing field and fair stage for younger generation to compete.

I cannot but feel some deja vu, however, when I come across with such policy announcement and reports. I believe we have worked so hard to develop solutions to address different aspects of this issue of gender gap. But I fear that many of initiatives to improve the status of women, no matter how effective and efficient, may not answer the basic question:“why do we work?” i.e. what is the core purpose of work itself?

Work an essential role player in shaping of the life

Is it not about time to go back to basics and think again about what we expect from “work”, regardless of gender in the fast-changing world with unprecedented level of uncertainties? When jobs and work undergo fundamental transformations, mainly triggered by technologies such as robotics and AI, each one of us needs to think why we want work. This question came up as I am at the turning point as one boomer generation and wonder how long I can and should work and to answer what work means to the rest of my life.

I want to work as long as I can, because of the following reasons:

  1. It is critical to have financial means to support oneself. Without economic independence, we cannot design our life.
  2. Job forms significant part of our identity and those without jobs tend to lose self-respect. Those with work within the households only (i.e. no external compensation) may find it difficult to confirm their value in the society, no matter how much their work is appreciated within the family.
  3. Job provides opportunities for us to identify our strengths, explore our potential and develop them as we interact with people to pursue shared goal. Through our work, we can “feel” we contribute to the society and to improve the world with our own capabilities. This serves as big motivating factor to continue.
  4. Job gives us one of the important means to develop and maintain intangible assets for good 100-year life such as relationships, diverse network, and transformation.
  5. It is crucial that WE feel we are in charge of our own work, and not be subject to the decisions forced on us. When we feel we can control what and how we work, we become productive and find work fun and meaningful.

These may be obvious and common sense, but reviewing why we work and why we want a job may clarify priorities. Work is undergoing significant change and even the work not replaced by machines will change tremendously in the next several years.

If we are clear as to why we work and what we expect from work, we can better navigate our efforts to be in line with the changing world – and to expand our horizons.


 Yoko Ishikura is Professor Emeritus at Hitotsubashi University. 
This article has been previously published on The world Economic Forum.
Featured image courtesy: Prorigins

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