What Jobs Do We Care About Anyway?

Geoffrey Owens was once a supporting actor on The Cosby Show. Now he’s a cashier at Trader Joe’s. Is this an enormous fall from grace or just part of a natural career arc? Either way, I’m shocked at how some news outlets are reporting it. Both The Daily Mail and Fox News seemed to be mocking the actor, for example.

It’s easy to call out the media, but as an I-O psychology professor and practitioner, right now I’m thinking about our field’s role in framing the study of jobs. I’m thinking about the importance of values in I-O psychology. And I’m also thinking about an article I read about two years ago in Industrial Organizational Psychology: Perspectives and Practice. In it, Bergman and Jean asked, “Where have all the ‘Workers’ Gone?” In other words, why aren’t front-line, low-wage workers better represented in our research samples?

As I re-read that issue, I recalled the narrowness of many of the examples I heard about in graduate school: almost all of them were tailored to white-collar and professional workers, despite the long history of I-O psychologists working with low-wage and front-line workers.

The Geoffrey Owens’ story put our fields’ focus on white collar workers into perspective for me. There is work that we deem important and work that we deem unimportant. We demonstrate these values every time we select a research sample. We see a similar pattern in which jobs people find valuable in society: young people don’t want to work in construction or trucking, for example. These under-valued industries could use the help of I-O psychology practitioners, but it appears we’ve idealized white collar work and ignored the long history of I-O psychology research into blue collar work.

If the future of work is the “gig economy,” with contract and contingent workers on the front line, then I-O psychologists will have to change to keep up. Lefkowitz and Griggs noted the importance of this need in their IOP articles and cited the importance of expanding the sampling strategies of I-O psychology research. As Landers and Behrend point out, purposeful sampling is key. We have better tools and methods to learn about a wider variety of jobs than ever before. It’s time we take advantage of it.

If you’re reading this and wondering how you can contribute to expanding the samples and jobs studied in I-O psychology here are some suggestions:

  1. Read Industrial Organizational Psychology: Perspectives and Practice Volume 9, Issue 1. It’s provides a great overview of these challenges.
  2. Reflect on your values. What kind of work do you care about? What kind of workers do you care about? Is there an understudied population that you can research or work with?
  3. Expand your research questions. Take questions that have been addressed in a white-collar sample and study them in a blue-collar sample. Remember, when you choose to study blue-collar and frontline workers, you’re walking in the steps of the giants of I-O psychology.
  4. Get involved with the Global Organization for Humanitarian Work Psychology. GOHWP has been doing excellent work expanding the boundaries of what I-O psychology faculty, students, and practitioners can study. Check out Stuart Carr’s amazing Shaken and Stirred Talk to get a sense of the type of creativity involved and then head over to the GOHWP page for more terrific resources.
  5. Get involved with SIOP as a contributor, a reviewer, or a volunteer. It’s your professional organization, so make the most of it!
  6. There are more outlets for your research than ever before, check out regional psychology conferences (like Eastern Psychology Association), Academy of Management, and the Association for Psychological Science for brand new tracks that address populations and samples you’re interested in. A little birdie has told me that APS is interested in new samples and research innovation.
  7. Get involved online. Follow researchers who study topics you’re interested in. For example, Dr. Alice Brawley Newlin studies the gig economy, and you can follow her on Twitter right now.

As Geoffrey Owens himself recently remarked, “There is no job that is better than another job. It might pay better, it might have better benefits, it might look better on a résumé and on paper. But, actually, it’s not better. Every job is worthwhile and valuable.”

Our job as I-O psychology researchers, practitioners, students, and faculty, is to understand all of the different kinds of work and show what value they provide to organizations. And if you do it right, you might end up in the next Tyler Perry movie.