Money, Monitoring and Motivation: Social Class and Work Effort

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
254 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Michael Tahlin, SOFI, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Job rewards (such as wages) are jointly determined by workers’ ability and effort (in combination with job characteristics). Class models of reward determination focus on the effort component of this equation, and explain class inequality in economic rewards by relatively high effort prices (wages) for privileged worker categories. A number of crucial relationships are expected in this kind of models, involving several key concepts. First, all classes of employees are assumed to be motivated mainly by instrumental factors (such as job retention, promotion and wage growth) to supply work effort. Second, there is a class gradient in effort prices, such that economic rewards for supplied effort rise with class position. Third, this gradient is driven by class variations in employers’ monitoring difficulties of workers’ job performance. The central concepts involved in these postulated relationships (motivation, effort and monitoring difficulties) have until recently not been measured in a way that allows explicit empirical testing of the models. In the fifth wave of the European Social Survey (ESS 2010), measures of all crucial concepts are available, specifically designed for the purpose. In previous research, class models of job rewards have been partially evaluated on the basis of good but less than fully adequate data. In the present paper, the superior data now available from ESS 2010 are used to carry out much more complete tests. The main findings are as follows. (a) Work effort does not vary much by class; different classes face job demands that are qualitatively distinct (e.g. physical vs. mental) but quantitatively similar. Hence, effort accounts for very little of the class-wage gradient, much less than other factors (mainly skill but also authority). (b) Effort does not interact with class in wage determination, which goes against crucial class theoretical assumptions. (c) Monitoring difficulties vary little by class, which contradicts another central tenet in class theory. (d) There are strong qualitative differences in work motivation by class: the more privileged are intrinsically motivated to supply effort, the less privileged are extrinsically motivated. Wage motivation is uncommon in all classes, but grows with material deprivation. (e) The class differences in motivation are readily explained by variation in work content, but go against central assumptions in class theory. In sum, work effort is at most a secondary issue in understanding class inequality. The central place that effort has been awarded in contemporary class theory appears to have a weak empirical foundation. The same goes for the associated concern with monitoring difficulties. Major explanatory accounts of class inequality in economic job rewards accordingly need extensive revision. Fundamentally, contemporary class theory has a conception of work organization and job rewards that is detached from work-life reality. In line with standard models in economics, class theory sees all workers as driven by extrinsic motives and all work as a disutility performed for material reasons only and avoided as soon as opportunities for reduced effort appear. The real world of work seems to be of a very different – less economic and more moral – kind.