For most of human history, the notion of job satisfaction would have seemed like a puzzling concept. Life was short and difficult. Just finding a way to survive and produce a family was a big deal. You grew your own food or hunted what you ate. The idea of a job — doing work for someone else in exchange for pay — would have seemed alien.
Today, though, survival is a given. Some of us might struggle financially — especially in an economic downturn such as this one — but we’re not worrying about starving to death. We have such a standard of living in this country that even someone who’s poor today would have been wealthy by historical standards. Our middle class families have things beyond comprehension to those in most of human history.
We’ve created a complicated economy that’s capable of delivering all this, and it’s a marvel. But there’s a dark side — and I’m wondering whether it has to be this way or if it’s an indication that most people are settling for being cogs in machines instead of making positive choices about what to do with their lives.
A new Gallup survey says that 70 percent of Americans are basically bored with or hate their jobs. The study says most people are “checked out” at their jobs or are “actively disengaged” from what they’re supposed to be doing. If this is true — and it fits my anecdotal observations — how did we manage to get here? And how can it change?
I’ll tell you right up front that I don’t have a real answer to this, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot for my own life. I know some people who don’t mind investing most of their waking hours in jobs that bring them no rewards other than pay, simply so they can watch television at night and then “party” on the weekends. There are many variations of that outlook, but none of them appeal to me.
I have a need to love what I’m doing and to feel that what I’m doing matters. I think most of us do, even if some people aren’t always conscious of it. I wonder if it was easier to feel that what you were doing mattered when you were directly producing your own food and building your own shelter, even if the standard of living was horrible. Can it feel as though your life matters if you’re sitting in an office processing paperwork for a company that you don’t care about, working for a boss who treats you in ways that dehumanize you? I doubt it.
If you’re just doing your job for the paycheck you receive, you have every incentive to go through the motions instead of caring, especially when the majority of people around you are doing the same thing — so it’s increasingly difficult to be fired.
I think most people today are still buying into ideas about work that were a reflection of the Industrial Age models that dominated most of the 20th century. We were taught — by schools, parents and more — that the smart thing was to get a college degree and get a job with some big company, which would then take care of us for life. That model has been changing for decades now — as companies have become willing to dump workers at the drop of a hat — but workers have found it difficult to know what to replace that way of thinking with.
After all, what else is there to do other than find a company to work for? That’s the way most people see it.
I’ve been self-employed for most of my adult life. It’s sometimes been difficult. I regret some of the choices I’ve made, especially staying in politics as long as I did. But I don’t regret taking the chance of working for myself and avoiding the grind that most people endure. There have been tradeoffs — some of them pretty severe at times — but when I look back on it, I can’t say that I would have been willing to spend the last 20 years in an office obeying a boss and doing something I didn’t care about — in exchange for having a nice suburban house and cushy retirement. Trading away most of life just to have an elusive form of “security” at the end of life seems ridiculous to me.
So when I look at this Gallup poll, I just wonder how many people could move from the 70 percent unhappy category to the 30 percent happy group if they were willing to take more chances and take non-traditional routes to earning a living. What if we were more willing to think outside the box when we’re planning our careers in the first place — and then co-operate with each other in partnerships later — instead of thinking we have to do the same things that make 70 percent of the world unhappy today?
More than anything, making a change requires that we believe it’s possible to make a change. It involves setting aside the doubts and fears that have become part of our attitudes because of the thinking we internalized in the past. And then it requires that we design our lives to be what we want them to be — taking into account the things that matter to us, based on how we can provide real value to others for doing things that matter to us.
So if you’re one of the disengaged, bored and unhappy 70 percent, consider what writer Seth Godin had to say about what you’re doing with your life.
“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from,” Godin said.
I don’t know everything about the way my life is going to look for the next 20 years or so, but I know it’s not going to be a life that I feel the need to escape from. If you haven’t thought about work this may, maybe it’s time to consider it.