It’s a weird world of work

Christmas is beckoning, and whatever your manner of celebration, chances are that you will enjoy some time off from work. If, like most people around the world, you intend to gather with family and friends, you might wish to pause to consider what exactly gives meaning to your life.

Coincidentally, the Pew Research Centre has just surveyed 19,000 people in 17 developed countries on exactly that question. Respondents were given 17 possible sources of meaning and asked to rank them. What is remarkable is how consistent the answers were.

In 14 of the 17 countries, family ranked first; in another country, it was tied for first. In the other two, family ranked third. Nearly everywhere, occupation or material well-being occupied the second spot. Friends made the top five in 13 of the surveyed countries. The U.S. was unique in being the only developed economy where religious faith made the top five sources of meaning.  

What gives meaning to your life?

Globally, having a meaningful job or employment is a great source of happiness, at least according to a worldwide happiness survey where 43% of respondents said so (Ipsos, 2020), whereas The Global Employee Engagement Index shows that the mean job satisfaction worldwide was 7.1 (Effectory International, 2021).  

A survey by the European Commission found that more than three-fourths of respondents are satisfied with their present job situation, though that was before COVID. In another survey, 14% of Millennials and 32% of Gen Zens expect to stay with their current jobs beyond five years (Deloitte, 2020).

Maltese people with a higher level of job satisfaction

People in Malta appear to have a higher level of satisfaction with jobs than their European counterparts, according to the findings of the Malta Wellbeing Index Project. Lead researcher Dr Marie Briguglio of the University of Malta points out, however, that the fact that Maltese tend to work longer hours than others in Europe means that they are less satisfied with their use of time and leisure.

In a splendid new volume, The Story of Work, historian Jan Lucassen points out that although slavery has been a dominant form of labour throughout history and in every culture, where labour has been freer, workers for millennia have taken pride in a job well done. Many, it seems, find work to be a source of meaning in life.

It is not uncommon these days for even well-salaried professionals to complain about the drudgery of work, but Lucassen suggests that we have never had it so good. In the 1830s, earning a living in Britain, for example, required more than around 300 11-hour days. On the other hand, the early hunter-gatherers worked an estimated eight hours a day for men and 10 hours a day for women — but their life expectancy was perhaps 30 years, cut short by disease and predators.

The 19th-century utopians imagined that in future the human race would lead lives of leisure thanks to “mechanisation”, but that fantasy has receded somewhere in the misty future. Some people work hard because they like their work, but others work hard to live up to the rising standard of living. 

The pandemic has no doubt shifted the tensions between work, family and other important aspects of our lives, and that seems to be at the heart of a new phenomenon that emerged in the months after the arrival of the virus.

Millennials are leading the recent increase in people quitting their jobs.

If 2022 will be as weird for work as 2021 has been, we’re in for an interesting time. Many companies (and politicians) had dubbed 2021 the year of returning to the office, but many white-collar workers either refused or ended up adopting a hybrid system where some days were spent in peace at home and other days were spent gossiping around the coffee maker at the office. We have also seen the start of two large movements that threaten to reshape the labour market: The Great Resignation and Lying Flat.

Millennials are leading the recent increase in people quitting their jobs. Even before the pandemic, millennials were suffering from high rates of burnout, so it makes sense that many are taking the return to normal as a chance to change what that normal is. Again, there is anecdotal evidence that many well-paid employees in Malta have been changing their jobs and looking for more satisfying ones or ones that give them a better work-life balance.

What effects will the pandemic and working life have on Gen Z? We know very little about the situation in Malta, but a survey of 1,345 young Brits ages 16 to 25 by the Health Foundation and Institute for Employment Studies in the UK sheds some light on a generation that isn’t necessarily happy at work but aspires for a fulfilling career.

Over half of respondents reported feeling overworked, unmotivated, stressed or anxious at times or often. Of course, experiencing stressful periods at work every now and then is understandable, but it is not a promising sign that young employees are already feeling burned out. This could have something to do with that damn pandemic, though.

But if good pay and meaning are high up on their list of priorities, Gen Z should have a second thought about lying flat. Prioritising one’s personal well-being and health over wealth now may impact job prospects down the line.

Labour shortage

The other weird thing going on right now in many labour markets is a labour shortage. Taking resignation rates, vacancy rates and wage growth together, many developed countries, including in Malta, are finding the market tight. In most other EU member states, employment figures are still far short of what they were in February 2020 and where they would be had the pre-pandemic trend continued.

Some of the weirdness with the labour market can be blamed on the fact that the pandemic is over but also not yet over. The new Omicron variant of COVID has sent shivers down the spines of everybody, prompting knee-jerk reactions from countries wary of having to lock down again. Safe to say, then, that the pandemic will continue affecting our work lives, even after we have said goodbye to 2021.

Meanwhile, the pace of automation and digitalisation has increased in many industries during the crisis. In fact, a survey by Ernst & Young found that 41% of respondents “said they were investing in accelerating automation as businesses prepared for a post-crisis world”.  

Interestingly, companies aren’t all converging on the same workplace model. After a year of upheaval, some employers report that their employees are suffering from change fatigue and just want the comfort of a familiar office. Others see the end of stay-at-home orders as a catalyst to try something new.

One bank I know of in Malta is considering telling employees that they would only need to come into the office three times a week. The models that business leaders and workplace strategists in the country are considering vary considerably.

If there is one lesson learned about the workplace during the pandemic, perhaps it is not that working from home was better or worse than working from an office, but that each had its merits. In the future, it seems likely that firms won’t converge on a single workplace model but will instead go in many different directions as they seek out models that are tuned to their business needs.

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