I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.  - The Coca-Cola  Company (1971)

Thesis: In response to a convergence of existential threats, we are now living in, and living out, an age of transcendence. Meaningful work has never been so important.

Key points:

  1. This author has seen a surge in demand for “meaningful work.”
  2. Research supports anecdote with constructs such as “calling” in career counseling.
  3. {Of note, I/O psychology terminology and research have evolved along an increasingly spiritual journey.}
  4. Transcendence, the core of meaningful work, is argued to be the current Zeitgeist, supported by four examples:
    1. Global stressors have led many to re-examine their lives and values.
    2. The pandemic, via WFH, has led many to take a critical review of their job.
    3. Millennials want jobs that provide a sense of purpose, value.
    4. Technology is now replacing knowledge workers driving the workforce toward humanistic jobs.
  5. Meaningful work must keep pace with global and individual needs and trends.
  6. This is not only being done (see #4), it’s doable. (No grammar issue)
  7. Most of the time, it’s up to leadership to make this happen.

A confluence of forces has led to radical change with exceptional impact on the world of work. Some, including myself, find the term “change” -- at least as a matter of degree or evolution -- to be completely “off mark.” We’re living in a new world, not a changed one as evident in so many ways.

One work-related result of this ‘break’ is less obvious due to its covert, psychological nature. {But not to me, mostly because people tell me so.}

More than I’ve seen in over two decades working with individuals at work, people are ‘detaching’ from their jobs and rebuking traditionally “hot” opportunities. The reason? These jobs aren’t seen as meeting their strong need to serve, live out, or simply “be” a bigger purpose. (Keep your eye on, “seen.”)

Meaningful work has never been so important.

Although I’ve couched this thus far in my personal experience, by no means am I alone. Scholarly work in different fields of study support my observations. And not just in quantity. “Spiritual calling” is a now a major topic in career related journals. Even psychoanalysis, which some consider “fringe psychology” due to its dearth of scientific study (although there is some movement here) is claiming more pages.

I/O Psychology’s not so “Slow train coming.” (Dylan, 1979)

Industrial/Organizational Psychology has evolved (more fittingly, “followed”) in a steady, progressive march toward increasingly spiritual constructs.

You laugh?

In the 1960’s we spoke of behavior as one would a tractor with the term “dimensions.” In the 70’s we started talking about ‘KSAs’ (knowledge, skills, and abilities) which shortly was revised to “KSAOs” (and “other” things) – still not particularly personal. The 80’s were the era of the more warm-blooded term, “competencies.” By the early 2000s, “emotional intelligence” was the hot topic with “values” and “culture” soon to follow as well reflected by the phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (widely attributed to, if not originated by, Peter Drucker). Continuing by connecting the last dot to make the face of a president, it’s wholly possible (no pun premeditated) that matters of spirit and religiosity make their debut in I/O psychology.

But I/O psychology isn’t driving the bus, it’s following the cab. The cab that is the shadow of humanity that no matter if we begin publishing on YouTube, we’ll never catch. (Sorry SIOP.)

At root, all psychology is all about P-E (Person-Environment).

People and environment are mutually dependent, each as cause, each as effect. And they never stray too far apart -- at least not in the non-clinical domain of psychology.

So, why is this important?

Well, there’s a lot going on in E now. And as previously inferred, what happens in E, changes P.

I’m too tired to review what everyone knows. Suffice it to say we’re living in stressful times. And that’s putting it mildly. Who can remember a time more evident of existential threat?

I know this sounds like hype. Sure, everyone lives out their own “existential crises.” Cats up trees, swimwear malfunctions at the water park, clogging your host’s toilet, etc. I get it. Everyone breaks their own glass for some existential threat. This is different. This is that “break glass” moment. The one out of a thousand.

We truly are living in existential times.

And today’s threats are more widespread, dangerous, and pressing than most of us have ever known (thankfully). But that’s not “breaking news.” What’s more remarkable, and may for some be “breaking news,” is how we’ve responded as human beings.

As mentioned, E is both cause and effect. So is P. This time of existential E has called for, and been answered by, P’s transcendent behavior.

We’re seeing it in multiple cycles of Newton’s third law of motion. In technicolor. But here I’ll turn up the volume.

In less time than it takes to add another candle to grandma’s birthday cake, we’ve whipped up vaccines more efficacious against a novel virus than a hot knife for butter. We’ve seen electric vehicles rise in popularity as fast as their maker’s rockets (and net worth), even if not solely out of concern for a melting planet. They’re literally overtaking the heretofore untouchable dominance of SUVs, muscle cars, and monster trucks – not to mention the net value of their makers. Combined.

Transcendence.

I believe transcendence is the current Zeitgeist and offer four examples to follow as support.

Example 1. Nothing quickens the senses like the threat of execution.

Constant exposure to the threat of infection of a potentially lethal virus along with daily updates on its death toll has lasted much longer than anyone’s "fight or flight" threat response. But they’ve kept us on watch causing many to critically examine and reset their world view. Predictably, things that usually rise to the top as most important aren’t things at all. They’re people.

As the saying goes, at death’s gate people don’t regret not working harder. They regret not loving more.

The pandemic (as one stressor) has very likely turned people from a self orientation to an other orientation. Interpersonal transcendence.

Example 2. As a corollary to Example 1, work from home (WFH) has created the perfect E for people to engage in negative occupational introspection – deep, critical examination of their job.

Social isolation frequently leads to compromised resilience, non-clinical symptoms consistent with depression. People with compromised resilience tend to ruminate, i.e., to engage in repetitive, escalating, negative thought patterns. People working from home for extended time are effectively isolated, with a lot of time to think about (ruminate about) their job.

Plus, the simple fact of being physically separated from the work environment likely leads to psychological separation, or detachment.

Example 3. Research suggests that Millennials prioritize work that allows them to meet higher-order growth needs consistent with transcendence and Maslow’s concept of self-actualization.

Millennials entering the workforce with “in demand” skills are receiving quite lucrative offers. It’s easy to assume that with such options available and salient, they’re not worried about paying for food or shelter. This moves them up several levels of the hierarchy of need from the start.

A survey of 1,000 millennials found that 84% of respondents indicated that, “knowing I am helping to make a positive difference in the world is more important to me than professional recognition.” (Bentley University Center for Women and Business, 2016)

Some less rigorous periodicals claim that some have nicknamed millennials “The purpose generation” for their interest in doing purpose-driven work.

Despite the lower quality of sources, I feel comfortable my claim:

Millennials seek valuable (higher purpose) work.

Example 4. Technology is driving the labor market toward more humanistic jobs.

Technology goes fast and accelerates. Technology has long had impacts on jobs, but with the recent development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) as well as robotics, machines have rapidly absorbed many aspects (if not jobs) in knowledge work.

Also, with thanks to ML, machines are now learning without programming/coding. Yep, give them access to data – lots of it (like, say, Cambridge Analytica obtained via Facebook), aim them at some desired outcome and let them do the work of fitting data to curves (prediction, for example).

It’s interesting (or frightening) to note that O*Net now projects the occupation, Computer Programmers, to shrink over the period 2020-2030. Could this be due to ML? (To be fair, O*Net projects other computer-related occupations to grow faster than average.)

The following table, below, lists in descending order the 10 occupations expected to grow the most (% wise) over the next 10 years according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

BLS Estimates of 10 jobs' growth from 2020-2030

Of note:

  • Five of the 10 are in the field of healthcare (we’re getting old as a population).
  • O*Net lists, “Assisting and Caring for Others” as a top 5 work activity for four of these five healthcare jobs (not medical and health services managers). {Assisting and Caring for Others is defined in O*Net as, “providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support, or other personal care to others such as coworkers, customers, or patients.”}
  • Growth percentages in the two renewable energy jobs are high largely due to the small number of workers in these occupations as of 2020. {It is interesting to note that these are jobs that service machines. What does that say about the role of machines/people?}
  • The remaining three jobs pertain to data analysis and security. No organization dares to exclude the ability to analyze and protect data. But ML can already do much of this. My bet is these are front loaded, with most of the increases likely to occur in the early years of the timeframe. The reason I say this is that I’m already aware of AI that not only performs statistical analysis, it also determines the best statistical algorithms to use.

These employment trends only partially support my assertion that advances in technology will a) increasingly impact knowledge workers and b) that occupations with humanistic goals will increasingly become the safe haven of the workforce. Nonetheless, they don’t refute my claim as much as they support it. (My POV)

When it comes to career planning that considers the future of technology at work, as they say in baseball, “hit it where they ain’t.”

Jobs that involve helping or providing service to others, or simply working with others, bring out the intangible qualities that make us human (we are social animals). My recently graduated nephew, a millennial who majored in computer science, disagrees with me, but I don’t see these jobs as easy prey for spiritless machines. {Please don't bring down Uncle Chris' website again - you know who you are}

Occupations that require authentic “other-orientation” or, “humanism” (like those mentioned, above) are a large part of what transcendence is all about. And NOT what machines are about.

The future of human work is about being human. And humane.

All the above point to the growing importance of meaningful work. I hear it, research supports it, the impact of global crises and WFH isolation, Millennial values, and the probable future of technology in, and out of, the workplace make a multi-source, multi-faceted case.

Meaningful work as defined by transcendence and humanism has never been so important.

The Good News

Despite any definition of “meaningful work,” the interpretation of what’s meaningful is squarely in the eye of the beholder. The same job may be considered to meet the criteria by one but seem hollow to another. This is variance, and I/O psychology loves variance. It’s the entry condition for change. Not a guarantee, but hope.

Virtually any job has the potential to offer meaningful work. At the same time, virtually any job has the potential to offer only menial work. I’ve met furniture salespeople who believe they’re saving lives and social workers who believe theirs are being sacrificed.

A key ingredient of meaningful work is for the worker to ‘see’ who their work helps. (Remember my earlier cue to watch for "seen?") Sometimes referred to as “line of sight,” everyone in any job should be able to see (i.e., trace) how what they do ultimately affects someone else. (Shareholders don’t make good beneficiaries in terms of making work meaningful. It’s best to stick with customers, coworkers, partners, etc.)

But this can be hard to see. Very hard. And some jobs simply can’t be glorified. These have no hope save a paycheck. For most, however, the potential to realizing a bigger sense of purpose in their current work is real.

Did I say difficult?

Even for jobs that do create the E conditions that resonate with meaningfulness, the likelihood is that over time these elements will fade into the background. Incumbents grow familiar with their jobs and familiarity is the cornerstone of schemas, or mental shorthand (and shortcuts). Mental shortcuts are highly susceptible to ‘blind spots.’ When we put ourselves on autopilot, we may hold the line (via muscle memory), but not see the mermaid. In this state, it’s nearly impossible to feel the love of your “line of sight.”

A lot of what determines meaningful work depends on leaders

For workers who don’t notice or see how their work ultimately creates human value, leaders are critical in helping them to form their “line of sight” to a deserving someone.

If the job has no potential for a line of sight, it must offer one or more of the following: a) the potential for redesign that does create line of sight, b) a good paycheck, or c) the specs for your new robot. Make it, pay it, or boot it.

It may take some creativity, but between job redesign and clarifying a compelling line of sight, nearly any job can be rewarding.

And the age of rewarding work – is now.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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