Opinion The Stats Guy: Young workers seeking ‘meaningful work’ are a recipe for mass disappointment
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The Stats Guy: Young workers seeking ‘meaningful work’ are a recipe for mass disappointment

Source: Simon Kuestenmacher

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Choosing a career provokes anxi­ety for young people. There are just so many choices, so many jobs, so many university degrees and technical and further education (TAFE) courses.

Spoiled for choice and suffering from decision fatigue, young people are turning to TED talks and YouTube videos for help. These motivational career advice videos always follow a similar narrative. The script may feel very familiar to you by now:

  • The horrible 9-to-5: I once had a normal job like you – caught in the hamster wheel of work. I was miserable. I wasn’t myself. I hated working for ‘the man’.
  • The calling: A dramatic event forced me to look deep inside my soul. I rediscovered long-lost passions.
  • The journey: Following my calling was scary, but I was brave and took the leap. I founded a start-up. There were obstacles. I thought about quitting but I persisted…
  • The purpose-driven job: Eventually I succeeded and turned my start-up into something big and beautiful. Now I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. Business is great. I make a lot of money. If I can do it, so can you.

This “follow your passion”, “live your dream”, “be your own boss”, “be happy” narrative is simultaneously great advice and a mental health crisis in the making.

Mental health crisis

There are about 13 million workers in Australia. We can’t possibly create an economy where all jobs align perfectly with the personal passions and preferences of all workers.

Why are young people in particular so obsessed with jobs having to be meaningful? Why do our lives revolve so much around work?

The first reason I can think of is the demise of religion. The ­religious narrative of a meaningful afterlife allowed us to endure even the most annoying jobs, as we could view them as a temporary nuisance on our way to eternal bliss.

Today, religion is out of fashion, especially with Millennials and Gen Z, and meaning must be created in the here and now. We pushed the responsibility of meaning-making away from religion and towards other parts of our lives.

Search for ‘meaning’

As we spend most of our waking hours at work, our jobs are the most obvious option to shoulder the burden of providing us with meaning.

Other activities – lunch, gym, holidays – are intensely documented on social media to convince ourselves (and others) that our lives are worth living.

Using social media to provide meaning to a life is routinely looked down on by older generations. Before criticising this, ­remember how much Instagram and TikTok shape the self-confidence of younger generations.

Why aren’t young people simply seeking meaning in their community, in their families, through volunteering?

The changed timeline of our lives may be to blame. Young people partner up, marry, settle down and become parents much later. In the meantime, they move around a lot more.

They move to distant cities, work longer hours and live in anonymous neighbourhoods. Under such circumstances it’s hard to become part of a strong community and be engaged in big volunteering networks.

Now let’s explore our belief in the meritocracy.

In recent decades the capitalistic and individualistic world view has prevailed over the socialistic and collective world view.

We emphasise the importance of our own hard work and believe we get what we deserve. Our young people are being told they are the most highly educated and privileged generation ever. They – and for the first time this specifically includes women – can achieve whatever they want if they only put in enough effort.

As long as things are going well, this approach is great, and we take credit for all the good things that happen to us.

Once things aren’t going well, our meritocratic mindset can lead us into a whirlwind of depression and anxiety. We have no one else to blame but ourselves. ‘It’s my fault that I am in a job that doesn’t make me hyper-excited about getting up in the morning’.

The career gurus on YouTube tell us we should be in jobs that make us feel that excitement every day. Clearly, we have failed and are reminded of this failure every day when our jobs don’t excite us.

Work image

Body-image issues have long been a huge mental health problem in young people, who beat themselves up for failing to look like the top models or fitness influencers they see on Instagram.

We now experience work-image issues in much the same way. However, given the increased appetite for feel-good jobs, more purpose-driven businesses will emerge.

Young entrepreneurs will start businesses that are focused on doing some good, not just the bottom line. They will do this out of the conviction that work should provide income and purpose, while serving a greater purpose at the same time.

Workers in such jobs will feel empowered and truly happy at work. Such jobs are worth striving for and I hope that more people can find such work.

There is, however, no way that all 13 million jobs in Australia will be empowering and purposeful. That’s not how an economy works. Most jobs still will feel like work and will be made up of tasks we consider boring, menial and meaningless.

This is likely to lead to more mental health issues and anxiety disorders in young people.

Millennials (also known as Gen Y, born between 1982 and 1999) and Gen Zs (born between 2000 and 2017) will make up 75 per cent of the Australian workforce by 2032.

These are the least religious generations and have been brought up on the “work must be purposeful” narrative and the meritocracy argu­ment.

They desire, and in large numbers will fail, to secure meaningful jobs. How to move forward from here? The first strategy is paradoxical in nature, which tends to be the case when dealing with wicked problems.

The solution?

We must continue to strive for meaningful work while not obsessing about meaningful jobs. The narrative that a normal 9-to-5 job is horrible must not be seen as a universal truism.

Once we decide average is dreadful, we make sure the majority feels horrible about their lives. ­Nobody benefits from this.

Further, we must stop our obsession with happiness and satisfaction in the here and now.

Nobody will ever live a life of constant happiness and bliss – an idea consumerism emphasises and religion rejects. We are, however, creating the expectation that purposeful work is the new norm, rather than an exception worth striving for.

I’m certain the younger generations, after experiencing a lot of pain, will come up with new ways of creating meaning in their lives. Meditation, yoga and mindfulness programs are booming for a reason. No wonder – the wellbeing of our young workers ­depends on it.