What do you think of when you hear the word ‘work?’ Most people think work is something to make fun of or to scorn. Scott Adams turned Dilbert into a household name, synonymous with cubicle farms, endless supplies of bad coffee and mismanagement. The Smiths song “” even takes it further and treats work as something obscene. I mean, it is literally a four-letter word after all.
Regardless of the economic environment, you’re bound to hear at least one or two stories from family or friends who are unhappy with their job. But in this current economic environment, there seems to be a lot of questions being asked on the value of work. It’s not that work isn’t important, but is it everything in a person’s life? Should it be?
Obviously, the answer is no. But consider this from Alexis Madrigal:
The upper middle class (i.e. the NYT reader) is WORKING MORE HOURS and having to stay more connected TO WORK than ever before. This is a problem with the way we approach labor, not our devices. Our devices enabled employers to make their employees work 24/7, but it is our strange American political and cultural systems that have allowed them to do so.
So while the notion we need to put our devices down is a good one, as Madrigal points out, we would probably put them down if we felt like we could.
The problem is, our society puts a lot of value in things and busyness. We’ve been taught to fill up our lives with activities and possessions. Literally. Scheduling our lives to the microsecond and buying bigger houses to store our ever expanding collection of things was just something that our society did. The saying “E pluribus unum” should have been replaced with “Keeping up with the Joneses” on all of our currency and coins over the past several decades. It was more apt.
Then people realized their homes weren’t worth what they thought. And then the debts started piling up while we started losing our jobs. All of a sudden, debt, which is an abstract construct, became more real than a house. And with it, we started asking ourselves a lot more questions about what’s important in our lives than we have in many, many years. In short, our society was confronted with an identity crisis.
What do I mean? Let’s look at how we view work histories. Who is more employable? A young man who has had to bounce from job to job out of necessity? Or an older man who stayed at one company, made his way to management, but has had five heart attacks in the process? For years, the goal was to try and be the second man, but without the heart attacks.
But chronically overworked employees are prone to higher risks of heart attacks and other health issues. Indeed, presenteeism is now seen as a bigger problem in the workplace than absenteeism. See the paradox? We relish men who are competitive and invulnerable (at least outwardly), yet the toll of “putting that mask on” can be quite high. And as women started working outside of the home more, women started having the same health problems as men.
So what’s the solution? First, the notion of a work week needs to change. If the new nature of work is more about the quality of ideas and quality of execution, it seems our notions of not only how we work but where and how frequently we produce work deliverables needs to change. Sometimes, the best place to come up with the next idea or how to execute that idea isn’t in an office, but on vacation. Or after you return from one. In short, we need to encourage people to get out of the office. But it’s not just about encouraging vacations. It can be about giving people more time to enjoy hobbies and other pursuits that aren’t work-related, but can spark employees to think differently. To think better.
Second, it seems people need to re-envision what a career path is. The old notions of what made a career need to be re-thought. And that young person who has held seven jobs in the past ten years may not be a job hopper or malcontent. They may have been just been trying to do what it took to get by. And who knows? That diverse skill set they built may actually be an asset.
Ultimately, this is about us. Are we going to continue to look to the same old ways of working and the same old notions of work as the way to leave this nation – and ultimately ourselves – forward? Or are we going to take a chance, have some guts and try to do things differently? To do them better? It’s all in our hands what we want our world of work to be.