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What Do We Want From Work? - How Work Became Life and Things Got Tricky

28/07/2016 13:48 | Updated 28 July 2016

When I started my first proper job I had low expectations. I'd been working in a furniture shop and it involved standing up for long hours and watching other people buy stuff I couldn't afford. This new job offered me my own laptop and a sit down desk. It seemed like a step in the right direction.

'At least you can sit down now,' my Mum said cheerily when I gave her the news. It was the late nineties. Sitting down was a good benefit. There were lots of other perks (travel, lovely people, good pay) and my first ambition was to get on the property ladder and start that upward trajectory that would ultimately result in me having a mortgage, proper furniture and more than one shirt in my wardrobe. Hell maybe one day someone would be watching me buy stuff they couldn't afford. Wasn't that what life was all about? (I was raised in the eighties so this WAS pretty much what it was all about).

I enjoyed work (and still do) but there was no doubting it was tough and demanded a load of compromises. The expectation was that you worked hard hours and sacrificed much of your social/family life. The pay off was seniority and more pay. This could then be used to re-dress the impact of working those long hours (creams to lift your sagging, tired eyes and holidays to sample normal life etc.) I had several wobbles at different stages (why am I doing this? What am I missing out on?) but I persevered.

It would all be worth it in the end.

And I wasn't the only one to have doubts. I saw people drop out completely (usually with a plan to live in the country/start their own beanie hat/gelato ice cream/organic pizza business). The sad thing is that many of them failed. The grass isn't always greener and whilst we usually see the success stories in magazines and on TV, running a beanie hat business isn't highly profitable (unless you're married to someone with a lot of money in which case who cares? Get those beanies lined up baby!)

But it feels now like attitudes to work are shifting. There is no longer a desire to compromise with the promise of a pay off in the future. We live in a high anxiety culture where bad news events have become common. It isn't inconceivable that our circumstances may change at any time (this is the perception even if it isn't yet the reality). Millennials can't afford to get on the property ladder and don't define success and happiness in the same way. They want MORE out of life than the opportunity to sit down. Parents are also shaping work norms - there's more pressure to be a REALLY good parent and to engage with children 24/7 and whilst being a working parent sends out a positive message, being absent doesn't. Parents want more too. Annoying isn't it?

Role models at work are also in flux. Do you admire a boss who is constantly stressed, overloaded and tapping away on their phone like a caricature from a sitcom? Do you want to be that person? Who do you look up? It's possibly someone outside your work, an actor or stunt person. A writer or a poet. Celebrity culture has shaped our expectations. We don't see the hard graft that goes on behind the scenes (or the stress). The truth is we'd like to be Beyoncé but perhaps working in an art gallery with some sort of ethical dimension built in there too. At the moment, it feels like there's a vacuum in many organisations in terms of who to look up to. What does the new leader look like? Where is Beyoncé when you need her? And anyway success involves a lot of hard work! And someone has to work.

It can't all be fun? God what is wrong with people these days?

The thing is work has to fulfil multiple purposes. It's not enough to clock in and out (I appreciate that many people DO have this relationship with work and there is very little they can do about it. I've been there too). Work needs to feel intellectually stimulating, provide emotional satisfaction, and be dynamic and not routinised. It needs to be something you feel proud of and don't mumble into your hand when you meet new people. I've had all sorts of jobs and few have lived up to these lofty ambitions (how could they?) Sometimes the worst jobs have provided the highest level of camaraderie and fun (there's something about a terrible job/project/boss that really bonds people together).

Employers are looking at ways to keep an ever shifting, demanding work force happy and content. A few Ping-Pong tables won't do it. Flexibility is the buzzword but this isn't just about whether someone comes in at nine or ten each morning. It's also about how their role changes and shifts as their lives change. What works when you're twenty doesn't work when you're thirty. Long-term retention needs to factor that in.

For new parents it might be about changing their role whilst the demands of screaming babies are at their peak. For millennials (and let's face it, it's not just millennials it's all of us), it needs to be re-thinking the benefits- how can life and work be integrated more successfully? What do employees want beyond more money and a nice team building trip? And how do you avoid designing a work force where no one is actually doing any of the work (and the bosses are becoming even less aspirational as their resentment builds).

There aren't any easy solutions.

'Your generation just have too high expectations,' my Mum said to be sadly, not so long ago.

High expectations are a bummer. They ultimately lead to disappointment and woe. It would be so much easier if we just got our heads down and clocked in and out and work was nothing more than a means to an end.

The thing is we have them now so what do we do next?

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