As peons to the production line, our daily grind keeps the conveyor from grinding to a standstill. We work hard to buy stuff we don’t need — filling our external space while emptying the internal. And yet, we fetishize over the perceived freedom of choice, foolishly duped by its illusion. In reality, much of our working lives are forged by prepackaged consumer-driven choices.
Unlike John Maynard Keynes’ utopian forecast in the 1930s, technological advancements have fallen short of delivering 15-hour work weeks and stretches of uninterrupted leisure. Instead, the promise of meaningful work is kept under wraps by vacuous and time-consuming routines.
No wonder professionals are feeling disenfranchised. Hays Canada‘s recent mass survey revealed that 47 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with their job. Young workers seem to be the most disgruntled. ADP’s recent poll showed that a staggering 55 per cent of workers aged 18 to 34 want to leave their current jobs compared to 30 per cent of all workers.
These numbers tell a tale of wage blackmail. We pay no mind to anything beyond the paycheque so we pay the price. Bound by mortgage payments, insurance premiums, and credit card debts, we drudge along carrying unfulfilling tasks through to their undue completion.
The promise of meaningful work is kept under wraps by vacuous and time-consuming routines.
This isn’t to say that all corporate jobs are invariably meaningless. Instead, meaningful work quietly enhances our everyday lives. This can materialize in any effort, however big or small, such as the work involved in optimizing door handles, shrinking grocery queue times, or reducing flight overbookings. Not all meaningful work requires solving momentous tragedies. We don’t all have to become doctors, philanthropists, or social workers so long as we delight in some visceral form of purpose. The crux of the issue ensues when workers personally suffer from damaged morales as a direct result of unfulfilling career trajectories. In fact, much evidence points to significant employee disengagement in Canada.
A recent longitudinal study of 400 Canadian employees showed that a mere 27 per cent were highly engaged, as in, fully absorbed and enthusiastic about their work. And, although employee engagement dropped during the 2008-09 recession, it failed to rise despite improved economic conditions. This trend proves equally damaging to employees and employers. Disengaged employees in the North American business economy cost a whopping $350 billion in lost productivity.
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Meaningful work is, by no means, a panacea. Still, emerging evidence shows that employees, especially young ones, want more out of their jobs than mere remuneration. For instance, more than 50 per cent of millennials say they’d willingly take a pay cut to find work that reflects their values, while 90 per cent intend to use their skills for good. Millennials are acutely aware of this epidemic of meaningless work. Deloitte’s Millennial Survey found that young professionals think that the business world is getting it wrong. Some 75 per cent say businesses unfairly emphasize their own agendas at the expense of social improvement, while only 28 per cent feel their current organization is making full use of their skills.
It is true that millennials are the most disengaged employees, but they are also the most willing to find work that reflects their values. It is our collective responsibility to guide them because they will shape our future. There’s no place for outmoded conceptions of work in the fourth industrial revolution. This is especially true when considering that advancements in artificial intelligence and automation will offer the possibility of alleviating the burden of many unfulfilling tasks altogether.
To break free from meaninglessness in the workplace, we must match the rate of technological progress with foresight into how the meaning of work ought to evolve in the coming years.
All opinions are my own and not the views of my employer.
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