This is the first of two essays I wrote in 2012, shortly before deciding to return to Australia.
As of June 2010, 55% of Americans were “unsatisfied” or “very unsatisfied” with their jobs. And in 2011, a study of 5,000 millennials between the ages of 16 and 24 found that young people aren't focused on becoming famous or creating enormous wealth. On the contrary, their hopes for the future revolve around making a contribution to society and staying in close touch with family and friends.
Why are so few people fulfilled by what they do for a living? Why are young people today less inspired by a traditional career path? How can this situation be improved?
Modern (western) society - and especially so the USA - has emerged as a culture of individualism and 'meritoracy' where the pursuit of personal financial wealth (and lifestyle security) has dominated our cultural discourse, often at the expense of higher order values. While both individual accountability, and personal reward for expertise and endeavour are important attributes, without the broader societal values such as the collective good, environmental health, the arts (for their own sake, not just for fame and fortune) and the broadening of our understanding of the world, they have driven our society to be incredibly extractive. My experience is that being self-centred, extracting from those around you, does not lead to an especially fulfilled outcome without a hefty dose of self-delusion.
In your question, when you say 'what they do for a living', I gather what you mean is 'what they do to earn money'; and I think perhaps part of the problem is this fundamental association of 'money' with 'living'. Having the means (money) to do the things that you want to do in life is important, however many young people entering the workforce today are beginning to realise that securing the means to living well is less important than actually living well, so we are seeing a global readjustment in values and what we mean by 'living well'.
So, briefly, I think so few people are fulfilled by their careers because our culture rewards a very narrow set of values; and people, when they're honest with themselves, actually have a much broader set of values.
With respect to the 'traditional' career path, its major draw card was always long-term job security. That, and the naive belief that one's work was beneficial in helping to 'build the economy'. People would put up with an unfulfilling job because it allowed them to picture a future - educated kids, a nice house, a comfortable retirement. The global financial shock of 2007 pulled the security rug from under the feet of many people entering the workforce. Traditional careers didn't offer the security they once did, and they were soul-destroying to boot. This has been partnered by a global realisation that the institutional status quo does not serve us especially well, and has not for some time - corporations have proven themselves untrustworthy and profit has proven itself unprofitable. It's hardly surprising that people are uninspired by most of the options that are on the table.
So, what to do? Well, my first thought is to bring the 'living' back into 'earning a living'. The workplace must begin to reflect the values that most real people have (honesty, generosity, integrity etc) and not just their vices (greed and fear). When one's career feels like an extension of life, and not one's life becoming just a bit-part of a career, then we may see people get broadly more satisfied with their places of work. A work place that adds many layers and types of value - health, well being, understanding, wealth and allows others to benefit too, now that may be a place which inspires.
Another step to improvement would be to start to assess success on the basis of higher order wealth. If companies are assessed on their performance in terms of health, education, research, art and music as much as they are on financial profit, then I can almost guarantee that they would become more fulfilling places to work.
So, I believe there are some institutional changes required.
1. To push wider reporting than simply financial (so-called triple-bottom-line accounting);
2. To create a global balance sheet for higher order capital (social, environmental, human etc) and make it an industry standard; and more importantly,
3. A value shift within organisations to begin to reflect actual value rather than just financial value.