When Lofty Ideals Meet Reality
Millennials and Gen Zers are routinely depicted in the press as prima donnas because of the high expectations they often bring to their work. But in talking with people who are just starting their careers, I get a sense of the real distress that so many of them have to deal with. There are of course many causes–– uncertainties over working remotely, student loans to repay, the unaffordability of apartments in urban areas where work is most abundant.
But I also believe that being ceaselessly told that they need to find work that is meaningful and fulfilling from day one raises expectations that can’t necessarily be met.
Such expectations combined with the often lonely and repetitive nature of many work-related tasks creates a kind of moral dissonance that can erode morale and even self-respect. Put simply, moral dissonance occurs when our day-to-day experience is at odds with our values and beliefs about the kind of work we want– or even should– be doing. And the kind of work we think we’ve been promised.
I’ve referred to this phenomenon in recent posts about restaurant workers in Copenhagen and how the terms we use to talk about work don’t reflect the reality of the actual experience. In last week’s post, I noted how trendy, hotshot job titles and work environments can end up confusing or worse yet misleading new hires about what role they will play in their organizations.
Companies often create this kind of moral dissonance either by oversight or with the best of intentions. But while doling out grandiose titles like Digital Overlord (for IT Manager) or Wizard of Lightbulb Moments (for Marketing Director) may show that the company has a sense of humor or aspires to be hip, they often promise more than they deliver.
Most of the time, these positions are simply jobs. As such, they provide a way of earning a living, using key skills and hopefully developing new ones. They may or may not provide a chance to build useful connections. But they do not usually provide a life-defining, or life-enhancing, identity.
Especially when that identity is at odds with what the person filling the job actually does every day.
In fact, even very good jobs can end up conflicting with one’s ethics or aspirations, as well as those expressed by the company. This happens regardless of level. I referred last week to a shop assistant whose title was Retail Jedi. She felt ‘had’ when the reality sank in that she was habitually stuck behind a cash register all day.
In The Every, Dave Eggers’ latest novel (which I also cited last week), he brilliantly transposes such quandaries onto a near and troubling future. In a scene where the main character, Delaney, is hired by the global data and consumer goods powerhouse (“The Every”), the onboarding platform assures her, “you are Seen Here” and encourages her to bring her “most Joyful Self” to work each day. The platform also positions the company as ecologically sensitive, through various self-imposed rules regarding fuel and food consumption.
But then Delaney is put into a job that is part of an initiative called Thoughts Not Things, whose goal is said to be to eliminate wasteful storage by replacing customers’ objects with digital copies. This sounds laudably ecological but of course the real objective is to capture ever more customer data. On top of that, the job is monotonous and uninspiring: Delaney spends countless hours scanning customer keepsakes— photo albums, trophies, wedding dresses and the like— into the system and then sending the originals off to be incinerated.
Her “cool green job” is neither good for the soul nor good for the planet.
Like the managers running The Every, an increasing number of companies now recognize that the best way to attract young talent is by using lofty language that depicts job roles in ways that connote deep meaning and moral heft. This strategy has become especially popular in today’s tight labor market.
In fact, it seems as if the idea of the experience economy, which was ascendant in the early aughts, is now being applied to work. That notion held that the key to business success lay in providing customers with an experience so wonderful and distinctive that they will feel compelled to return. In its latest iteration, this thinking and language has been applied to work itself.
Such an approach does succeed when the job is intrinsically satisfying and rewarding, as were the customers’ experiences that first gave this idea currency.
But an inspiring work experience only happens when the company can deliver a strong culture that lets people grow and contribute their talent and skills— and when the ethical standards proclaimed in the company’s mission or values statements are reflected in how daily work is done at every level.
Simply promising employees that they will be “seen here” or be viewed as Tech Svengalis, when the daily reality does not reflect this, creates the conditions for cynicism and churn.
We can do better.