Originally published to Forbes - March 17th, 2022
For generations, our jobs have been largely and intimately intertwined with our sense of self. Derek Thompson, a noted writer at The Atlantic, says this is due, in part, to “workism,” or the idea that work is the “centerpiece of our identity, the focal point of our lives.” Then came the pandemic, and everything we thought we knew about the workplace and our role in it quickly dissolved.
With this rather sudden shift in psyche has come a shared reckoning with, among many things, our overworked and underappreciated health care system, the gaps and cracks in our public education system and our shared cultural understanding of the concept of a career. Many of us have found ourselves asking: Is work really for “a paycheck or a purpose?”
Undoubtedly, the “Great Resignation”—a term coined by Dr. Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University to describe the 4.5 million-employee exodus from the workforce—is holding a magnifying glass over that same question. It’s forcing us to hit the reset button on many of our cultural norms. And it’s compelling us to rethink the standard high school to college to workforce pipeline.
So how do we address this challenge? First, we need to better understand and accept the factors that led to our current predicament. Critical skilled labor shortages certainly didn’t happen overnight. But we can start to address them by abandoning the notion that attending college is the only path to personal and professional success. I believe that one of our primary objectives as a society should be driving toward economically sustaining and family supporting wages. While this seems counterintuitive, our work culture largely doesn’t support this objective.
For example, as Boris Groysberg said in a Bloomberg piece, “many companies unthinkingly demand a college education as a condition for employment despite the fact that more than 60% of the population doesn’t have a degree.” As a result, we’re leaving so many talented workers—particularly those from underrepresented communities—out of the economic mobility equation. Focusing more on non-traditional paths to workforce development, like training programs and professional boot camps, are underutilized options that can help level the playing field. These options also oblige us “to start thinking about ‘talent’ differently, not as a problem that can be solved but as a supply chain that needs to be sustained,” according to the Bloomberg article.
Second, we must also be more intentional about creating spaces for students, adult learners and working professionals to build the life they truly want. That means:
• Providing more opportunities for students to learn about careers and then match their passions and talents with experiential and exploratory learning opportunities like internships and apprenticeships—many of which can be performed online.
• Connecting more unemployed and underemployed Americans to workforce training programs; and
• Helping more workers reskill and change careers in a cost-effective and convenient way.
The days of the hashtags #sidehustle, #GoalDigger and #IGotTheJob are fleeting; they’re quickly being swapped out with quirky, tongue-in-cheek Instagram posts of #WFH, #CorporateAmerica and #IQuit. While comical in tone, this viral digital narrative underscores a very serious truth: Our country’s perception and expectations of work are shifting, so we must shift with them.
As we reflect on losses and lessons over the past two years, it’s important that we continue to reconsider the ways we talk and think about the meaning of work. Today, we’re better equipped than ever to answer existential questions such as, is work something we do or something we are? In your company, are you perpetuating the college-is-for-everyone myth? Is the educational industry giving young students—particularly those from underserved communities—enough opportunities to discover their passion, or could it do more? Answering these questions will help get us closer to reimagining what the post-pandemic workplace could and should be.
Consider the mom who left an overnight job to pursue a work-from-home career in software engineering. Or the former federal worker who opted to pursue his acting dreams in Los Angeles. Many analyses of these increasingly common transitions focus on the five B’s: “better pay…better hours, better boundaries, better leave policies, better bosses.”
While a slice of this assertion is certainly true on the surface, we’re also grappling with something we’ve known in theory since forever: work alone doesn’t make us happy. In the days and months ahead, it’s important that each of us takes the time to decide if and how our career and academic pursuits fit into our outlook on life. Our post-pandemic future certainly depends on it.