The Value of Work

What makes work so important?

That work is of great importance for our society and for participation in that society, is widely endorsed. In this light, unemployment is seen as a major social problem and the government has committed to stimulating employment levels for decades. But what makes work so important? Is it only about the economic significance – work as a source of income and wealth? Or is work essential to our personal development and sense of purpose – the intrinsic meaning of work? What kind of work do we have? Only paid work or also unpaid work? To what extent is this related to the institutions around work, such as laws and regulations in different countries? The project ‘the value of work’ tries to find answers to these questions.

Is work only about the economic significance, or is it also essential for the personal development of people?

This project examines what different disciplines can teach us about the value of work. Ostensibly, economists perceive work very differently from sociologists and social psychologists. Is there a large discrepancy between these disciplines or are there some common grounds?

A second important question is how the actual valuation of work differs; between countries and cultures, but also between different population groups. For example, between different levels of education, and young versus old. And how does the nature of work – such as rewards, contracts, working conditions – affect the valuation of work?

The third question is how the valuation of work correlates with the existing institutions involved with work. Consider the wide acceptance of part-time work in The Netherlands, which is accompanied by legislation and collective agreements on equal treatment of part-timers and full-timers. Are these institutions still linked to the value of work in most countries, or is there a (growing?) tension between institutions and value?

How does the nature of work influence the value people ascribe to it?

About the labour market in 2040

(in Dutch)

Valuable or worthless work?

Most disciplines maintain a positive and a negative approach to work. According to some, work has a greater value for both the individual and society, whilst to others, work is merely a burden and a sacrifice that people do out of dire necessity.

How do we value our work?

Most people are satisfied with their work and indicate that they would not quit their job if they won the lottery. And yet there are complaints about work and winning the lottery would, for many, be a reason to work less. What exactly determines how we value our work?

Institutions matter

Work is always performed within a certain institutional context. This includes formal laws and regulations, such as collective labor agreements. Equally important, however, are the informal institutions and unwritten rules, such as the unwritten psychological contract between employer and employee. Formal and informal institutions can vary considerably between countries.

Match between institutions and the value of work

Existing institutions around work and its valuation can be complementary, but can also be at odds with each other. For example, the government is putting increasing emphasis on employment security or ‘employability’, whilst most individuals are more concerned with security of their (permanent) job.

The project consists of three parts. The first part is a survey on the value of work. It aims to benchmark the current knowledge about the value of work in various scientific disciplines: sociology, economics, social psychology, anthropology and philosophy. In addition, it provides an overview of the differences in the actual value of work between countries at present and over time.

The second study gives an overview of the existing formal and informal institutions around work in different countries. This provides insight into institutional variations and how institutions change over time. It also examines how the institutional differences relate to the variation in the value of work and identifies (policy) opportunities to influence and scape the future of work.

The third part consists of a conference with scientific experts and social actors to discuss the outcomes and societal implications of the first two studies. Central to this is the question whether the existing institutions around work or the dominant values with respect to work should change to create more synergy between them.

The study will be conducted by the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (AIAS) which is part of the University of Amsterdam led by Professor Paul de Beer.


Prof. Dr. Paul de Beer Director AIAS & Professor by special appointment Henri Polak Chair of Industrial Relations