The future of more meaningful work….post-lockdown, corporate workers take stock

by Sarah Firisen

When we were young, most of us indulged in the speculation, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Many of us said things like a firefighter, a doctor, a nurse, or a teacher. As children, we instinctively looked at the world around us and recognized the careers that seemed to have purpose and meaning, and that seemed to make the world a better place. I can’t imagine that many 5-years olds dreamed of being paper pushers or spending their days doing data entry. But we grow up. People around us have expectations for us; we have expectations for ourselves. We might have academic challenges, financial needs, family obligations. We see the world and the careers open to us as more diverse and as more challenging than the Fisher-Price Little People figures that characterize the world for a child.  And so, many of us lose that childhood idealism and just get a job, get on the career ladder, put our noses to the grindstone.

At the beginning of lockdown, my friend and former colleague Catherine and I started talking about the future of work. This conversation turned into a book that we’re currently writing, and a companion podcast called The Impromptu Game Plan. Our overall premise was, “for the last decade, the digitization of jobs, primarily through automation, has been an exponentially disruptive force.  And then COVID-19 hit.  COVID-19 has devastated entire industries that may never come back, or at least come back in their previous form. It further disrupted the world, the economy, the workforce in ways that we will be living with long beyond the end of the spread of the virus. The economic disruption caused by lockdown has accelerated the workforce displacement already underway due to automation and other technology disruptions.  We’re now living through a perfect storm of human-made and natural disruption that will cause as much reordering in society as the industrial revolution did, perhaps more so.” We thought there was an interesting germ of an idea there, but we had no idea how prescient we would turn out to be.

For my last 3QD piece, I wrote “Does work have to be such work?” I think that the societal movement that I discussed in this piece has now become even more extreme and widespread. COVID lockdown has caused many people to appreciate having more freedom and flexibility in their daily work lives and generally question their relationship to work. This trend now seems to be on the rise, “Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.” Now that many of us can go back to the office and return to something like our pre-COVID lives, it turns out, we don’t want to, “After a year of unprecedented stress, workers are also burned out and reexamining how to live their lives. “People have had epiphanies over the past year,” Klotz said. “We all want to pursue life, liberty and happiness, and many of us have realized our job isn’t the best way to get there.”

In an opinion piece this week, the columnist David Brooks writes, “People have been reminded that life is short. For over a year, many experienced daily routines that were slower paced, more rooted, more domestic. Millions of Americans seem ready to change their lives to be more in touch with their values.” Optimistically, Brooks sees these shifts as the possible start of a new American renaissance that could rebalance society with shifts from cities to suburbs, work and domestic life, employers and workers. He sees it as a “national journey of discovery.” Is it too idealistic to think that this journey of discovery could lead this renaissance to look more like The Renaissance with an overflowing of creativity unleashed and innovation?

Interviewing people for the book and podcast, Catherine and I found that many people had started on this journey even before COVID. People were already beginning to look at their lives, particularly their careers, and wonder, “Is this all there is?” Pre-COVID, in October 2019, a study found that “Ninety percent of millennials in a recent study said it was either “somewhat important” or “very important” to them that their work have a positive impact on the world.” But what Catherine and I have found is that this isn’t a trend that’s limited to millennials. It seems that, particularly around middle-age, people start to realize that life is short and that, if they’re lucky, they’re at least halfway through. One of our storytellers, Jonathan, clearly states, “I’m more than halfway through my life, and I feel like a clock is ticking.” And so it seems that across the spectrum of age, an increasing number of people are looking to create more meaningful careers that utilize their strengths and experiences and speak to their passions and values.

In this New York Times interview with Betsey Stevenson, a professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of Michigan, she says, “We all will have various times in our life where we’ll stop and say, whoa, am I going in the right direction? Is this the right occupation for me? Should I do something differently? But I can’t think of any other time when it’s been a correlated shock across the entire country where we’ve all been forced to ask questions.” She goes on to describe the mood of the moment as, “the take this job and shove it phase of the pandemic.”

But what does this mean for industry? Work still needs to be done by someone. The Biden administration has a far more immigrant, refugee-friendly approach than Trump’s. Because of it, will there be a wave of new Americans, escaping crisis and poverty in their countries of origin, who are willing and able to step into the jobs that Americans no longer want? David Brooks believes that this situation is giving employees greater leverage over their employers, “Employers are raising wages and benefits to try to lure workers back.” But what Catherine and I have found, at least in our small sample set, is that money is often not enough to make people stay in careers they no longer find rewarding. We have story after story of people turning their backs on stable, secure, well-paying jobs to find more meaning in their work.

The onset of COVID and lockdown accelerated the pace of automation for many companies. Executives who had been sitting on the fence, or dragging their feet over the need for digital transformation, suddenly had no choice.  It’s unlikely that any C-Suite execs went into lockdown regretting that they’d automated as much as they had; instead, they likely had regrets that they didn’t automate more.  Many companies and organizations were suddenly so overwhelmed by demand that rapid automation of tasks was the only option. Digital transformation in the workplace will only increase if people continue to turn their backs on corporate life.

And the need to upskill the workers who remain on the job has never been greater. If it used to be hard to find all the skilled workers needed, this new trend away from corporate work makes it even harder. PwC has found that many executives realize this. In its 2020 CEO survey, they found, “74% of CEOs were concerned about the availability of key skills. Now post-COVID,  More than half of the business leaders surveyed consider people issues, such as availability of talent with technical skills (59%) and supporting burned-out employees (55%), as very important for success this year.“ More than ever, companies realize they are better off upskilling their existing workforce than trying to hire for all their new technology needs.

Of course, it’s possible that this too shall pass. That for most people, the need for stability and security will put their soul searching to the back of their minds, and that they’ll end up reentering the corporate job marketplace. Only time will tell just how dramatic this journey of discovery and its shockwaves end up being.