In The Paradox of Choice, American philosopher and sociologist Barry Schwartz writes that, “As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options.” And yet, “clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction – even to clinical depression.” Indeed, more choice is not necessarily better for people. And this is especially true for young workers currently thinking through their career paths.
In late August 2015, I attended the World Economic Forum’s Annual Curators Meeting, a five-day event bringing together over 450 leaders known as Global Shapers between the ages of 20 and 30, from cities ranging from Edmonton, Alberta, Oslo and Tshwane. As expected, a week-long gathering of such a diverse group of people brings many takeaways, and yet, what struck me the most was entirely unexpected: out of the hundreds of conversations that took place over those five days, the vast majority of individuals in attendance were unsure as to whether they would remain in their current jobs, even though they enjoyed their current line of work. In short, the majority of Global Shapers were looking elsewhere, happy and yet not entirely satisfied with their jobs. Many reflected on how their talents and skills could be better utilized somewhere else.
It is no longer any surprise to me when employees, reports or media publications remark on the importance of addressing employees’ needs, wants, aspirations, desires and values. In comparison to the traditional workplace, the emphasis on helping bring an employee’s “best self” to work is important. Workplace culture experts, advisors and writers such as Christie Hunter Arscott and Anne-Marie Slaughter – who focus on the importance of understanding and care in workplaces, respectively – are helping achieve large strides forward in how people of all ages are empowered in their work lives.
But there is a danger to all of this, one that is a threat not just for companies through increased turnover of staff, but for young workers looking to build their careers and find meaning in their lives: comparison. Although we currently live in a society that places overwhelming value on autonomy, freedom and choice, what is fundamentally different about the modern workforce is the belief that it is possible to do anything, combined with the perception that our colleagues are living exciting and varied lives. These are facilitated by increased access to online social networks, where the stories people tell about themselves are rarely as positive or accurate as they appear. Together, this allows for the perfect storm, where the inability to stay in a particular company for more than two or three years, perpetual dissatisfaction and as Schwartz remarks in his book, depression, all come together.
In a world of hyperconnection, one where work-life integration is increasingly seen as a virtue – these threats will only worsen as it becomes more and more difficult for individuals to separate themselves from their devices. With the benefits of additional opportunities for remote work, a collective societal understanding that work should be meaningful and access to all of the world’s information at our fingertips comes with barriers to space for solitude and aloneness. That is, spaces where individuals can ask fundamental questions about what it is that they want in their lives, what kinds of lives they wish to lead and above all else, why they answer these questions in these particular ways. These sorts of questions require separation from devices and from the lives of others. It is one thing to be busy and feel productive; it is another to be intentional in selecting a path in order to arrive at a given destination.
In David Brook’s The Road to Character, the New York Times columnist writes that, “We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.” When speaking with senior leaders in industries everywhere from property development to steel manufacturing and forestry, they express much the same: confusion and dismay that young employees seek constant impact, recognition and feedback – in other words, external forms of validation – in their work. And when these elements do not exist – they leave. After all, better opportunities always appear to exist elsewhere, and the access to information about the world is greater than ever.
The modern workforce is one that values social purpose, where individuals’ values and aspirations matter more than in the past, where gender equality is slowly being achieved and where young people’s perspectives and ideas are beginning to matter. These are all opportunities, and they are worth celebrating. But as Schwartz rightly notes, more choice is usually less. Moreover, the access to information through a hyperconnected world, and opportunities to glance into others’ lives, brings with it the evils of expectation and comparison. As a result, Millennials turn toward self-help books and lists, personality quizzes, productivity hacks and status updates in order to find validation.
In this world, those who create space for solitude, demonstrate patience and who critically and deeply examine what kinds of lives they wish to lead will thrive in a world that is changing at a breakneck pace. Indeed, these qualities have always been important, and are paths to experience and wisdom. However, they will be ever more valuable in the modern workplace, helping overcome the hyperconnection and anxiety that make direction and focus such challenging and yet admirable goals.
Author: Emerson Csorba is a Director of Gen Y Inc., a workplace culture consultancy focused on cross-generational engagement and the future of work, and a Global Shaper
Image: Employees work in front of their computers at the Vente-Privee.com company’s headquarters in Saint-Denis near Paris October 24, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Platiau