Study Summary: Self-regulating Professionals and Experts in the "Knowledge Economy": Autonomy and Authority Compared

Study Summary: Self-regulating Professionals and Experts in the "Knowledge Economy": Autonomy and Authority Compared

Knowledge WorkSelf-RegulationAutonomy
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November 24, 2020
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Professionals have long-been characterized as privileged workers in the labour market, enjoying more status, autonomy, and higher incomes than most other workers. These privileges, however, appear to have waned over time, to the extent that professional workers may be largely indistinguishable from other expert workers in Western knowledge economies. In this brief report, we compare the autonomy, authority and incomes of workers in self-regulating professions, and those in other expert occupations. We find no significant differences in terms of autonomy and authority, and only marginal differences in terms of income. Including managers in supplementary analyses reveals that they enjoy work privileges that expert non-managerial workers lack.


Workers in self-regulating professions – including most notably medicine, dentistry and law – have long been regarded as privileged. These workers have enjoyed social and cultural authority, workplace autonomy, and higher incomes, as well as the privilege of applying complex knowledge to solve individual and societal problems (Freidson, 1970, 1986; Goode, 1966; Saks, 2012; Starr 1982; Weeden, 2002). Several scholars, however, suggest that this professional ‘golden age’ has been waning since the 1960s, to the extent that autonomous professionals are increasingly indistinguishable from bureaucratic experts across the economy (Brint 1994; Gorman and Sandefur 2011; Evetts 2002). The extent to which we now live in ‘knowledge economies’ remains disputed. It is widely agreed that specialized knowledge work has become an increasingly central aspect of the development of modern economies. But a confluence of social trends – including regulatory changes, patients’ and consumer rights movements, new public management, and rationalization – appear to have undermined professionals’ working conditions (Abel, 1986; Dent, 1993; Saks, 2015). Research, thus, suggests that self-regulating professionals may not be the privileged workers they once were.


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