We talk about media literacy these days, and that’s fine. I would say, it’s even absolutely necessary.
However, we also need to talk about this little thing called work literacy, too.
To say that a job is a job, or work is work, simply because all work pays money, is a reductionist statement that refuses to acknowledge the intricacies of different roles in different industries.
I for instance, am a knowledge worker. I have previously worked in consulting and advertising. What I do is, simply put, problem solving.
I analyze scenarios, identify symptoms and issues, and then generate methodologies and execution plans based on said methodologies to solve/alleviate these problems.
I provide options for decision makers, and in some cases, mindsets they can adopt to achieve consistently better results in the long term.
The output that I produce is not the same as the output produced by a chipset factory, a publishing house, or a graphic designer.
Why We Work
Work is work, yes. But how people approach work varies from individual to individual. Some work to just put food on the table. Others to finance their lifestyle habits, such as going on trips and buying clothes and accessories. Some believe in the company they work for, or the clients and consumers they serve, or even a combination of both.
Yes, everyone works for money. That is the bare minimum one expects from a full-time job. However, some of us want more from life.
In an age when basic investment portfolios and other avenues can generate decent streams of passive income, we do want more from our work. 40-hour workweeks are standard, but those who work in high-stress industries such as investment banking regularly grind 80–100 hours per week.
Most of us wouldn’t spend the majority of their life in unhappy marriages. Thus, it is strange to think we would be happy spending almost 90% of our waking time in monotonous jobs simply ‘for the money’.
Some of the work motivation factors regularly mentioned in human resources literature include:
- Autonomy: The ability to provide input on and influence key decisions, and the scope for clearly defined targets that can be adjusted on the go.
- Social Status and Professional Achievements: Our mothers, sisters and wives understand only so much about the inner workings of derivatives, or the importance of data analytics in consumer healthcare. We have our own professional idols to look up to. Networking, as dreadful as it can be, is sometimes intensely rewarding, too.
- Growth and Leadership: Many employees seek opportunities for growth, such as through training, higher education and greater responsibilities. They seek to find challenging assignments, ones that also preferably infuse them with a greater sense of purpose. They also seek good leaders in their bosses, who set clear expectations and provide consistent feedback from time to time.
Of course, such wants are hard to satisfy in most workplaces. But some organizations, mostly ones identified in industry-leading literature such as Built to Last and Good to Great, possess more than one of these features. It’s what pushes us to look forward to work, and happily bring work home with us too.
Why Some of Us Dislike Work
Gallup has polled 25 million employees in 189 countries, asking them about work satisfaction. According to the latest State of the Global Workplace poll, 85% of the workforce is disengaged at their workplace. That represents a staggering $7 trillion in lost productivity.
Millennials, on average, prefer challenging work environments. Barring that, we live from weekend to weekend, and on longer timelines, from trips to trips, marriages to childbirths and car loans to mortgages.
For those of us who are conscientious, it is hard for us to enjoy happy hours when, the next day, we have to return to a job we have hated for as long as we have known, surrounded by people who are just as miserable.
We Are All Special. Which Means, None of Us Are.
It would be unfair to imply that other generations don’t value meaningful work too.
A comprehensive study by HBR found that most generational cohorts (Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials) embrace the importance of work that provides value. However, it also found telling evidence that each generation thought that all other age groups weren’t as hard working and mostly in it for, you guessed it, ‘the money’.
Some millennials are self-assured. Some are even ignorant to the point of being entitled. But to label an entire generation as such because of a few bad apples is to paint in very broad strokes indeed.
Would it be fair, for instance, to imply that baby boomers destroyed not only the US economy, but the global economy as a whole?
The Baby Boomers made a habit of passing tax cuts and borrowing money without any concern for the future. Boomers elected Reagan and Thatcher into office, ushering a historic wave of neoliberalism and trickle-down neoclassical capitalism. It’s a huge inversion of JFK’s philosophy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
In the housing crisis that ensued three decades later, perhaps Generation X bear the most blame. According to a paper titled “The Foreclosure Crisis in 2008: Predatory Lending or Household Overreaching?”, the largest percentage of households in foreclosure belonged to Gen-Xers who had high average household income ($59,500) and many years of education (14.8 years).
Millennials are set to inherit a complex economy, where many are saddled with mountain loads of student debt. I bear no illusions about our uniqueness. We are no more special than the ones who came before us.
Millennials are certainly not smarter than Generation Z, who were born with iPhones and started using social media by age five. However, we have our own stories to write and tell.
We want more from work because we want to set better examples for ourselves, our peers and, eventually, our children. Isn’t that what everyone wants, in the end?