Despite various paradigm shifts and stunning advances in technology and communication, the dominant pattern of modern life has not changed much in the last fifty years: go-to-school-get-a-job-get-married-settle-down-raise-a-family-get-a-watch-retire. If you are one of the unfortunate souls who were not born into streams of inherited wealth, you have probably followed all or part of this pattern, depending on how far you’ve advanced in the aging process.
However, it is clear that the pattern is unraveling. Marriage is not the sacred institution it once was, and if you’re not heterosexual, it is not an option in most places. Having children is no longer an automatic choice for growing numbers of women; I once worked in a department with nine other women, all but one over thirty, all but one childless and the rest with no plans or even thoughts of either getting married or raising kids. The get-a-watch concept is fading fast, as corporations switch their propaganda from “job security” to “job opportunity,” meaning that any loyalty you have to a company had better be of the flexible variety. Retirement itself is undergoing flux, as Social Security looks iffy and our faith in the ability to the stock market to grow our 401(k)’s remains under assault.
But the go-to-school-get-a-job part of the pattern is still holding firm. There are a few artistic types who manage to avoid it, and few entrepreneurs who have parlayed their talents and marketing savvy into relative independence, but for most of us slobs, the menu is pretty much limited to a list of possible occupations. Some opt out of going to college and have to select from a shorter menu. Those who go to college may begin with more choices (depending on the job market at the time), but those choices are eventually reduced by the push to specialize in a single body of knowledge. People see jobs as a necessary evil, a sign that you have matured and are willing to accept reality for what it is—a daily routine of commute, work and commute again. They are things we “have to get,” not necessarily things we “want to get.”
That last statement would appear to contradict polls and engagement surveys showing that a majority of Americans are at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs (not so much with their particular employers, though). I think this is more of a matter of making lemonade out of lemons. My experience tells me that people often like what they do but they despise their boneheaded leaders or the general working environment. But there is more to it than that, something elusive that cannot be captured in polling numbers or engagement surveys.
Having listened to thousands of people in all kinds of organizations over the years, I can say unequivocally that tune I hear most often in the background is Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?” This does not show up in polls on job satisfaction because people have a hard time telling the truth about their current status. We almost always say things are going better than they are because we don’t want anyone to think we’ve made a mistake. This applies to everything from buying a new car (it’s always “I love this car” even if it is a piece of junk) to choosing a job. Since people learn to put on a happy face for their employers to avoid being labeled complainers or to prevent having their career paths filled with landmines planted by resentful bosses, any survey of the workplace is but a superficial indication of what is really going on. The reality is more along the lines of the common response, “It’s okay—for a job.”
The employment scene is like a bad supermarket. There seem to be plenty of items to choose from, but none of them really satisfy the craving. Many of the items are attractively packaged, but when we open the packaging, the contents are either flat or spoiled. We stand in the aisles like Mary Tyler Moore during the opening credits of her 70’s sitcom trying to decide if we really want the thing in our hands and then shrug our shoulders and fling it into the cart. After all, we have to eat something.
Among the selections available to us, the default choice for most people is some kind of job in a corporation, particularly if your overriding “need” is to make money. Landing a decent job for a name company is considered a respectable choice; and when we get the offer, we approach our prospective employment with a combination of relief and excitement about our now apparently rosy future.
Unfortunately, once you get past the corporate packaging that advertises a constantly expanding career path and the apparently attractive job offer, you have to go to work at the place. The reality of the workplace is very different from what most people expect. Prospective employers don’t tell you that it is impossible to get anything done in their corporation because of a power struggle on the executive level. Recruiters don’t tell you that your boss is an arrogant jerk who always has to be right and that if you have the gall to suggest new ways of doing things, they will banish you to an outer cubicle to clean up an obsolete database. Sometimes an old hand will see your excited face as you enter the workplace with your sugar plum visions, pull you aside and whisper, “Wait until you’ve been here about six months.” That’s usually how long it takes for people to realize that their chances of making a real difference in an organization are virtually nil.
This is not to imply that all corporations are this way and that everyone working in a corporation is a self-serving, self-righteous incompetent. If that were the case, corporations would not have produced the successes they have produced. Most organizations survive and sometimes thrive because of a small core of decent, dedicated human beings with a strong orientation towards cooperation who somehow work through all the crap strewn in their paths like Andy Dufresne crawling through the sewer to freedom in The Shawshank Redemption. These people are both fortunate and determined enough to find both meaning and achievement in their work. Though some are in positions of leadership, most tend to work quietly in the background, translating the gibberish emanating from above or from “corporate” into workable solutions that satisfy customers and earn profits for the enterprise. They are the master lemonade makers, living proof that spending one’s life in an organization can be a rewarding, personally satisfying experience.
So while it is possible to retire with more than a gold watch but also with one’s dignity, there is more than enough pain in any organization to make job satisfaction a very difficult thing to achieve. One could read the polls and feel reassured that America is a happy place full of happy workers who cannot wait for Monday morning. If that were true, why are stress management classes in such great demand? Why do so many Americans seem to be on medication? Survey results do not capture the overwhelming dissatisfaction with the greater predicament of an employment system that seems to offer us a limited set of less-than-desirable options. The results measure what we have learned to cope with, learned to accept as normal and our ability to give up when faced with what we perceive to be the inevitable. As is usually the case, surveys fail to capture what is really going on.
What’s really going on is that our organizations are filled with people who don’t really want to be there and would much rather be doing something else.
This is something that every organizational development consultant or HR professional has to face if they are to make a real difference for the organization that hired them. In future posts, I’ll offer some ideas for how to turn that combination of unwillingness and latent energy into something positive and meaningful.