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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 30 August 2013

The Evolution of Work

The first canary in the coal mine that I noticed was Kai Nagata. Frustrated with the inadequacies, inefficiencies and deep-rooted institutional stigmas of TV journalism, Nagata decided he’d had enough; whatever became of his post-CTV career, it would be on his terms and in line with his own ethical sensibilities. Nagata was praised and criticized as brave, brazen, whiny or disturbed.  The institution, after all, is established; he had just made of himself an outsider.  Few saw him as the beginning of a social trend.

Yet there was a trend emerging. Others followed Nagata out the door and into an uncharted realm of moral independence.  Respected media pundits started being  publicly critical about the unspoken taboos tacitly seen as unshakable undercurrents in our society. You could even say biting the hand that feeds is becoming trendy. What’s particularly noteworthy is that, looking to define and capitalize on these emerging trends, more researchers and reporters are digging down into broader social opinions about work, motivation and our overall feelings concerning our lot in life.

So, what are they finding?

Despite a greater number of us Westerners having more of everything than any generation previous, we’re a far from satisfied lot – and a good deal of our malaise is connected with work. You could say the key word there was “generational” and suggest that Gen Y is less dedicated to the traditional work hard, earn more and be happy model – and you’d be right. At the same time, the social world of today doesn’t look the way it did even ten years ago, much less immediately Post-WWII or Turn-of-the-Century when the industrial machine was humming along nicely. The results now being sought by employers, the tools used by employees, the structure of work environments and the length of work days have changed dramatically.

We’re not even defining success the way we used to. In times of yore, success was about profit, position of authority and the ability to download responsibility. Social consequence was barely considered. As an example, there’s a great story about a rather wealthy individual who drew motivation from seeing his father mistreated by employers. Seeing the impact that treatment had on both the father and his family, this guy decided he was going be the one who stepped rather than the one who got stepped on. In the process, he not only became the same kind of employer that abandoned his father; his fixation on success came at the expense of his own family’s emotional health.

Few of us want to be that guy any more – the abrasive ladder-climber whose greatest asset is their ruthlessness. Today, profit and access to stuff are essentially taken for granted; the world seems less dog-eat-dog when everyone’s basic needs are met. The corner office is a nice perk, but it’s personal brand recognition and legacy that we’re interested in now. Blame social media for the expanded demand for validation, but also for the declining importance of position. You don’tneed to be part of the establishment, or part of any establishment to have your voice heard and your opinions matter these days. As a result, you don’t need to accept brow-beating by a micro-managing employer to find social success any more, either.

More than 35% of American employees would fire their bosses, if they could. Kai Nagata did. So did Greg Smith. They were unhappy and took their fates into their own hands, which is exactly what Ryan Eggenberger (see opening quote) is encouraging. Also worth noting, though:

62% of employees would rather improve their workspace than their commute
51% of employees aren’t excited about the prospect of going in to work and my favourite:
Half thought that internal politics (51%) was more critical to advancement than hard work (27%), while only 4% saw creativity as relevant to success.

You can define creativity rather broadly; for my selfish purposes, I’m going to suggest it implies the development of new products, services and processes, i.e. innovation. In our increasingly rapid product evolution cycle, there is a large demand being placed on generating new everything. Equally, the cash crunch of our contracting economy is necessitating more streamlined, efficient processes in all sectors – processes that, dare I say it, breach the unspoken conventions on which work has traditionally been based, such as monetary incentive being the greatest motivator for every kind of work.

So, we have an increasing number of dissatisfied employees who are meh about their boss and the work they do, would like their work environments changed yet still feel money is the prime motivator. These frustrated folk, wrapped up in the pressures of modern work life, aren’t considering innovation as important to their/their company’s success. Then, you have an increasing number of outliers throwing off the shackles of established work and building new careers on a foundation of meaning and ethics, daring to do work differently. Simultaneously, Generation Y is talking about independence, control of their own time and the drive to do the things they believe in. From experience, I can tell you there is a huge reservoir of bold, revolutionary and effective products and services bubbling up from these emerging social entrepreneurs.

The nature of work has changed; it’s only natural that the labour landscape should change with it. This time, though, the would-be labour revolutionaries have inside help.  Smart Human Resource providers are encouraging CEOs to look at labour through a new lens; put the labour first and success will follow.  These HR professionals and forward-thinking executives have a growing number of private-sector service providers to call on in reshaping labour motivation and, as employees have asked for, workspaces themselves

Meanwhile, a growing number of Gen Yers, unable to find work and feeling less than ecstatic about the opportunities they do have are going to strike out on their own.  The successful ones will inevitably gravitate more towards traditional management styles when it’s their own money on the line, but their experience, the demands of their future employees and the realities of motivating innovation will irrevocably change the rules of the game.  This is good news for employees, but it comes with a caveat; the more meaningful work becomes and the more accommodated your labour is, the greater will be the bleed of work life into personal life.  It’s the difference between holding down a job and having a career.

Looking down the road at these expected labour pains, there’s just one piece of advice I can offer; if you’re going to dedicate your life to something, don’t do it just for money – money isn’t enough.  Do it because you believe in it.

Dec 2015: "But here’s what I know: I can’t teach young people how to be ethical, upstanding reporters while working for a man like Michael Schroeder. I can’t take his money. I can’t do his bidding. I have to stand up for what is right even if the cost is so daunting that at this moment it scares the hell out of me."

Do what is right, even at personal cost.  Who else will?

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