Why is it that almost everyone I know in their mid 40s to mid 50s, hates their job? Whenever two or more of us are gathered together it seems the universal response to the universal question “How’s work?” is to complain about the often highly skilled and highly paid work we do between Monday to Friday.
This work-a-day misery seems to affect people who work in all sorts of capacities, from commercial business, to the public service and academia. Apparently we all failed to take notice of the advice Carole Bayer-Sager gave us in our youth, “Don’t wish too hard for what you want, because then you might get it, and then when you get it, you may find you didn’t want it all”.
This is not a phenomenon limited to my own narrow circle of friends and acquaintances. Recently I heard a life coach remark he makes most of his money working with middle-aged people who are trapped in jobs they no longer enjoy. But don’t feel too sorry for them, he went on to say, such people are trapped because they are too highly qualified, too highly paid and too highly committed to chuck it all in and start over. Perhaps he could have added they also feel too damn old, tired and disillusioned to muster the necessary enthusiasm.
Hugh Mackay talks of an emerging culture of disengagement, a turning inwards, a sense of being powerless and out of control in the wider world. In The Weekend Australian’s feature (March 26-27) “Are We Having Fun Yet?” Sarah Edelman, a research psychologist at UTS and author of the best seller Change Your Thinking, is quoted as saying, “Many complain of feeling trapped in soul destroying jobs where the pursuit of status and wealth has, paradoxically, created huge amounts of stress and unhappiness”.
These jobs may be “soul destroying” but they are not necessarily mundane or boring. Often they are seen as glamorous, exciting and are highly coveted. Perhaps one of the reasons people feel trapped in them is they also know that if they walk away, there may be no going back.
So what has gone wrong? Are my generation, as many claim, really just a bunch of self-indulgent whingers who don’t know when they are well off? Have they simply spent their youth and energy chasing false gods? Or is there something actually wrong with the world of work?
All of the above, I think, with the additional proviso that a sense of disillusionment, a realisation of limitations around middle age is probably nothing new. (Another irritating characteristic of my generation is a tendency to think they are experiencing everything - sex, childbirth, parenthood, menopause and now, ageing - for the first time.)
But the complaints my friends make are new. In essence their theme is that there is no longer room for them, as individuals, in their jobs.
Because of the obsession with accountability (essentially a culture of who is to blame), nothing that cannot be counted is seen as actually existing: experience, talent, flair, wisdom, warmth, wit, humour, compassion cannot be plotted on a graph so they are worth nothing. As Donald Horne said, “We now live amongst fantasies of exactitudes instead of tangible achievements - talk of progress now comes in graphs and tables”.
The world of work, reflecting the world at large, has become a scary and inhuman place. Recently I went to a business seminar on creativity. We were addressed, as is usual at such things, by a panel of creative luminaries. To a man (there were two women) they claimed creativity and success were due to never resting, never relaxing, to remaining one step ahead of the other guy, eternally. As I listened, I didn’t feel motivated or inspired, or even impressed, I just felt tired. What was the point of success, I wondered, if you were never allowed to enjoy it?
In fact, success in business seems to have become just another stick to beat ourselves with. If a company has an exceptional year due to one off circumstances, as many did during the Sydney Olympics, this is not taken into account when the next year’s targets are set. Employee after employee has been given yearly targets that ask for unrealistic and unachievable percentage increases on past performance. Far from being motivated, they know they have been set up for failure.
The unrealistic expectations we now place on ourselves are one of the reasons CEOs receive such huge payouts when they leave their jobs. They know they are being asked to perform tasks beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, so they build big termination payouts into their contracts.