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As a rule, we’re not enjoying the fruits of our labour

Labour Day has come and gone, September has established itself in earnest and summer feels like it’s fading away. Add in the failing daylight hours and you’re primed to start questioning the daily grind and where it takes you.

Most of us aren’t following our bliss as we trudge off to work each day, and with summer vacation and the mood-enhancing weather behind us, well, some soul-searching wouldn’t be a stretch.

Leaving aside the increasingly dehumanizing and predatory nature of capitalism – i.e. the goal of neoliberalism – we’re simply not finding job satisfaction. In fact, more of us hate our jobs.

That’s been shown in a number of surveys in recent years, a trend that’s only growing with demographic transitions in the workplace. Younger workers, in particular, are less inclined to stay put when the job isn’t working for them, and the degradation of work means that’s the norm, not the exception.

A series of Gallup surveys, for instance, shows less than a third of employees feel engaged at work. A Neilsen poll for the human resources firm Ceredian showed similar numbers: just 27 per cent of Canadian workers are satisfied with their current employer, with the rest actively seeking or open to a new job.

“If your workplace culture is lacking and your leadership isn’t transparent, authentic, and people-centric, then employee engagement will naturally be low,” noted Lisa Sterling, chief people and culture officer with Ceridian. “Our data show the real reason a person becomes a flight risk is because employers fail to focus on addressing career growth and development – which are required to retain key people. This often results in alienating top employees and makes it a struggle to attract new ones.”

Younger workers are less likely to remain patient, and more likely to reject traditional patterns of paying your dues to achieve advancement in the workplace. They’re less inclined to work long hours and to stay under the thumb of hierarchical organizations.

“The expectations are different than even 10 years ago,” said Sterling. “Raised by baby boomers, many of whom clocked long hours on the job, millennials don’t want to wait decades for work they find fulfilling.

“Millennials have a desire to do work that is interesting to them. Things that give them joy and satisfaction. I think they’re more willing to walk away than the generations that came before them.”

While there are things employers can do to boost job satisfaction, chance are slim we’ll see any real changes by fiddling at the margins. The real culprit is our live-to-work mentality, under which we define ourselves by what we do, period.

Meeting someone for the first time, we immediately transition from “How are you?” and “Nice to meet you”  to “What do you do?” By that, we mean to determine what the other person’s job is, and how to classify them in our social hierarchy.

We define others by the work they do. Worse still, we define ourselves that way. Many of us were raised to believe that what we accomplished defines us and gives us our self-worth – early in life we are already being identified by what we did and in our minds our self-worth often came from our accomplishments.

The way work has evolved essentially detaches us from our other roles in society, not the least of which is our ability to function as engaged citizens.

That’s certainly not by accident, as it’s important to some that the bulk of us remain cogs in the machine: debt-laden consumers who fear work ever-harder – often with unpaid overtime – for fear of losing our jobs.

Work, in many respects, defines our relationships because, apart from family, it is where we spend most of our time and where we interact with other people. For many people their closest relationships are formed at work. Work provides meaning and purpose in a work-dominated society. Work dominates every aspect of who we are, what we are and why we are here, she says. “In a work-dominated society happiness has to be earned through work and we tolerate the trials and tribulations of work in order to become happy. It’s supposed to be the pathway to happiness.”

We’ve bought into the myth of the work ethic to such an extent that not only do we sacrifice time, relationships and our health, but even our principles: we’ll do things we may not be comfortable with in order to keep our jobs or to get ahead – it’s all about status, after all. In the bigger picture, the job-creation argument is often trotted out in support of projects with environmental or social downsides – jobs trump all.

That’s true even today with the rise in the number of low-income workers who increasingly find themselves in go-nowhere jobs, often part-time, with low pay, no benefits and no prospects of improvement. While some of these jobs may be adequate stepping stones for students, as was the case in the past, the ranks are more often filled with other workers, from those a few years out of school through to those past retirement age who still struggle to make ends meet.

It’s hard not to conclude that the stress and exhaustion created by the pace of our lives, largely related to work, ends up driving us to distractions – TV, videogames and the internet, to name the electronic surrogates for life. We’re losing the time to think, losing perspective. The outcome is unlikely to be good, no matter how much we acquire through working.

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