Monday, 2 May 2011

Dream jobs, work-life balance, and other lies

It was great on Friday to have an extra day off work. I could have spent it in front of the telly watching a celebrity wedding. Or in front of Twitter watching people bitch about the celebrity wedding (I was tempted). Instead I took the chance to catch up on some of the things I don't usually have the time and energy to do. And I thought a bit about my working life.

Everyone knows about the hierarchy of needs, right? The idea is that basic needs come first - stuff like food, sleep and sex. Then you get the nice-to-haves like safety, belonging and esteem. And at the top you get self-actualisation.

This theory is supposed to be useful when you manage people. Now, I've never been in a workplace that lays on food or sleep, let alone sex. And I've definitely never been in a workplace that provides self-actualisation. I think I'd feel pretty suspicious if it did.

Now, it turns out, everyone's saying it's rubbish anyway. I wish they'd told me that when I was doing my middle management 101 training.

I recently read an article that said actually many people aren't interested in self-actualisation anyway. 'Existentially indifferent' they call it. And these people have lives that are superficial and quite happy. And as I read it I thought: that sounds like a few people I know. A lot of people I know actually (some of whom I'm related to).

And then I thought: hang on a minute. I've spent most of my life chasing after self-actualisation. Was I actually chasing rainbows?

Somewhere along the way someone sold us a lie. And I think it is quite a recent one.

The lie is that somewhere out there is your dream job. A job that's matches perfectly your talents, your values and your aspirations. A job that matches perfectly who you think you are, or who you want to be.

And there's another lie that goes along with this. It's the lie about work-life balance.

Earlier this year I watched a BBC series about how we used to work and there was no suggestion from any of the interviewees that a job was anything other than a meal ticket. For most of the 20th century, you went to work, you worked from 9 to 5, you went home and you got a life. If you were lucky you had a laugh with your workmates. But apart from that, no-one expected to actually enjoy their job. Self-actualisation didn't come into it.

And no-one then talked about work-life balance. You had a job. You had a life. They took turns. But when you clocked off, you clocked off. I know people now who read work emails on holiday. Not because they have to. Because they want to.

I know my own work-life balance is pretty rubbish. I don't work a lot of overtime but I work hard. Having a white-collar job doesn't help, because computers are as hard a taskmaster as any production line. But it's not just me: this is normal nowadays. (Oh, and there's no 9 to 5 these days, by the way: it's 5.30 now. How did they sneak that in?)

So when I get home from work I don't have a lot of time to do anything else. Worse, I often don't have a lot of energy to do anything else. I'd rather be blogging than sleeping but sometimes that's not possible. And if all I do is work, eat and sleep, where does that leave my life? On hold.

But that's where they've got you. Because if you get actualisation from work, you don't need hobbies. And if you get self-actualisation from your job, your job's got you.

They'll talk about work-life balance because it sounds as if someone cares. As if one day things will get better. But don't expect it to actually happen.

No-one mentioned this in careers talks at school. But no-one mentioned 'dream jobs' either. It's the carrot they dangle to keep you going. And it's a relatively new invention.

This happened somewhere between me leaving school and getting my first proper job. I remember I shocked the university careers advisers by saying I wanted a job not a career. I still think I was right.

Looking back, I think that, like ploughman's lunch and PCs, the dream job was an invention of the 1980s. (Interestingly, a time of rising unemployment: there's something for the conspiracy theorists.) Suddenly, work was presented as something aspirational, that came with shoulderpads, power dressing and 'lunch is for wimps'. And somehow, somewhere along the way we fell for it.

If you think about it, you might think that self-actualisation and work-life balance are two sides of one reality; two choices. You can have one but you can't have the other. I think that's the real lie. I suspect that, in the early 21st century world of work, you can't actually have either. But they'd love you to think that you can.

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