Certain ‘jobs’ should be left behind in order to pursue more meaningful work
From off-the-cuff table talk to buttoned-down meet and greets, employees of all collars usually ask: Where do you work? Rarely, if ever, do you hear: What’s your job? The answer is simple—nobody dares to leave a bad impression.
We perceive this risk because ‘job’ doesn’t have the most exemplary connotation in our vernacular. In my opinion, a job is something we must endure for 40-plus hours a week to earn some pay. Gradually, this became the norm, and an onslaught of punch-in-punch-out jobs erupted—although that may not be the case today.
This issue is all but simple. There are dead-end jobs, and there are “dead-trend jobs.” The latter, I believe, are lifeless from the start. Dead-end jobs are jeopardized by disruptive innovation, whereas dead-trend jobs temporarily pop in and out of the market.
At least with dead-end jobs, purpose is a matter of perspective. Take the story of the three labourers found smashing boulders with iron hammers. When asked what they were doing, the first one replied, “Breaking big rocks into smaller rocks.” The second said, “Feeding my family.” The last one said, “Building a cathedral,” which was in reference to the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris, the capstone of which was laid in 1345—182 years after the initial work began.
This means the first generation of labourers may have spent every waking moment breaking rocks and, in turn, their backs. For posterity’s sake, the third labourer left no stone unturned. He was driven by the day his grandchildren would revel in the artistry of the cathedral, which would stand tall and proud for decades to come.
In my view, the same cannot be said of dead-trend jobs. With dead-trend jobs such as “chief visionary officer,” “influencer” and “brand warrior,” employees in our post-industrial economy are swinging their iron hammers into thin air.
Globally, a growing number of workers believe their jobs are pointless. In a 2013 survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, nearly a half claimed their job had no “meaningful significance.” In fact, the same number of workers admitted they could not relate to the company’s mission.
Another poll, conducted by Gallup, the Washington, D.C. based polling organization, showed that of 230,000 employees across 142 nations, only 13 per cent of workers actually liked their job. A 2015 poll conducted by the market research company YouGov showed that 37 per cent of British respondents thought their jobs were invariably futile.
I believe this futility emerged out of a systematic failure of how jobs have been conceived. It’s little wonder that “job” was originally ascribed to demeaning wage work during the industrialization of 18th century England. Driven from their traditional work on the land and in crafts, these labourers were reduced to cogs in a lean, mean, profit-maximizing machine.
For a century, these cogs were kept churning by economist Adam Smith’s tenet that people were naturally lazy and worked only for pay, according to The Atlantic. Smith’s “division of labour” concept meant that workers would perform repetitive tasks while being responsible for a small contribution of the product. Unlike craftsman of the past, several labourers working this systemized line increased efficiency, as described in the International Encyclopedia of Ergonomics and Human Factors.
As such, I believe manufacturing systems became less reliant on meticulous skill and attention—competencies that otherwise wage-hungry labourers lacked altogether. Ever since then, work has been cast down as a mere money-making, GDP-generating, chore-like exertion.
The remnants of this history continues to shape our working lives. Take, for example, the teacher who aspires to educate young students, but realizes that only scores on standardized tests matter. Take the financial advisor who seeks to counsel sensible advice, yet recommends riskier investments to meet commission quotas. You won’t find any shortage of these examples in our labour force.
Nevertheless, there’s good reason to be optimistic. Researchers and managers of international corporations have shifted their focus to meaningful work. Recently, Globoforce and IBM released their most recent report based on a global survey of 22,000 workers. Findings showed that out of the six human workplace practices examined, meaningful work topped the list. Meaningful work contributed the most to employees’ positive workplace experiences.
We shouldn’t try to continue “dead-trend” jobs. There’s no possibility of advancement from these jobs, nor can any level of technology save them. Let’s bury the dead for good.
All views are my own and not that of my employer.
Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth