Working toward balance

Assistant Professor Ofer Sharone offers a new perspective on work

Ofer SharoneOfer Sharone

Ofer Sharone first became interested in studying labor market and workplace institutions while practicing international law. Traveling between the United States, Israel, and Japan, he began to perceive real differences in how people understood their work and what their work meant in their lives.

One of the issues that most intrigued him was the tremendous number of hours he saw lawyers working each week. “I was curious about what was driving that,” he says. “It seemed to me that someone who is a lawyer or an engineer should be able to make more choices about how to balance work and other parts of life, and these were the people putting in the longest hours.”

Leaving the law to study sociology at University of California, Berkeley, his first project examined the work hours of high-tech software engineers, where he realized the enormous impact performance ranking systems can have on people’s work lives.

Since then his academic career has focused on the various ways job insecurity and the precarious nature of work can shape the work experience. Sharone joined the MIT Sloan faculty in 2009 after receiving his PhD in sociology at U.C. Berkeley. He also holds a JD from Harvard Law School. His teaching interests include the sociology of work, economic sociology, negotiations, and social theory.

A closer look at job seekers

For years sociologists have noted a tendency for American job seekers to blame themselves when they are having trouble finding a job, as opposed to job seekers in other countries who tend more often to understand the cause of their unemployment as structural. And while this “self-blame” phenomenon has usually been attributed solely to America’s culture of individualism, Sharone’s recent research has worked to develop a deeper understanding of some of the systems operating beneath the surface.

Conducting an in-depth sociological comparison of job seekers in both America and Israel, Sharone noted the huge impact America’s self-help industry has had on the perceptions of white-collar job seekers. Focused solely on projecting passion and other intangible characteristics in cover letters, résumés, and interviews, self-help authors and lecturers leave little room for larger, systemic explanations. “Even if these ideas are initially motivating and inspiring,” Sharone explains, “over time, when you are having difficulty, there is no way for you to understand why you are not getting a job other than ‘I must be doing something wrong,’ or worse, ‘there is something wrong with me.’”

“In Israel it is very different. There is a whole different set of institutions that focus much more on objective skills and discourses. One gets a job or not depending on whether or not they have objective skills for that job. So in the Israeli case you get much more anger at the system when people are unable to find work.”

A new home

“As a sociologist, I feel extremely fortunate to have ended up here at MIT Sloan. I am in their Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER) group where basically everyone studies the kinds of issues that I am interested in: work, labor markets, and the economy. I get to work with some of the world’s leading sociologists, but I also get a chance to interact with economists and with political scientists, who are bringing interdisciplinary lenses to the same issues. I think MIT Sloan does a great job of breaking monolithic disciplinary approaches to issues and throws together a group of scholars who are really learning from each other to have multiple approaches to similar problems.”

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