Looking for a working life with meaning

When seeking happiness in our working life, it’s easy to be swept up in the culture of passionate employment. To look at the memes about working hard and believing in your dreams and that’s it- success assured.

Yet most Australian workers enjoy far less flexibility, financial incentive and freedom than what the idea of passionate employment allows for.

Our relationship with work is changing. We are asking more of work than we did say 50 years ago. We also face increased job insecurity. Some of us face the potential of reduced penalty rates and lower pay. And many on salary are being asked to work longer hours.

So how do we balance this new found awareness with a culture that is changing? And how can we create a middle ground that satiates the desire of the individual worker and the needs of a commercial society?

Let’s take a look at work and what it truly means to us. And how we can develop meaning in our working lives, no matter the circumstance.

Australian workers are increasingly unhappy

It appears the average working life is not a bed of roses. The Australian Institute of Management released a report in April 2016 on the state of the Australian worker. Of 25,000 workers surveyed, 81.9% of workers leave their jobs in search of new challenges. More than half because their current employer offers such limited opportunities. And while 44% cited a lack of pay rise as a significant influence in their decision to leave, 63.7% point the finger at culture. The lack of support and the ability to progress means people are leaving.

During a segment on Channel 10 about the same report, they highlighted the cost of recruiting a new employee is an average of $26,000.  With higher rent or mortgages and an increased cost of living, many workers are struggling. Some are even opting to forgo contributions to superannuation in favour of getting by.

The workers are chasing better pay and the companies are paying up to $26K for a new employee. Isn’t the solution obvious?

Economic pressure in Sydney is well known. It’s becoming a problem in many regional centres and other capital cities as well. 2 million Australians now struggle to put food on the table as the price of living increases while salary does not.

Much of that comes from the cost of renting and of home ownership. Rent is more than 30% of the average wage in Sydney, a figure that means that low income families cannot find homes. A study by Anglicare on Rental Affordability in 2016 found that only 19% of houses available were affordable for low income workers. These pressures are increasing and commuting is becoming more common. To the point where outlying cities such as Wollongong, The Blue Mountains and Central Coast are now facing similar real estate price blow outs.

It costs 12.2 times the average salary to buy a median priced house in Sydney. Melbourne is the next highest city at 9.7 times.

Over 25 cities (regional and urban) are more expensive than New York, a city once considered the most expensive in the world. They include Wollongong, Port Macquarie and the Gold Coast.

And while many attempt to commute, the traffic is becoming worse. The Productivity Commission found small business owners were spending up to 3 hours in Sydney traffic a day. The cost in lost productivity when making a delivery or attend a meeting in Sydney is skyrocketing.

A book entitled City Limits: why Australia’s cities are broken and what we can do to fix them found 29% of Sydney workers spend three full weeks a year just getting to and from work. Only 14% of the city can be accessed within a 45 minute trip. This is not due to geographical distance but to traffic bottlenecks. The Grattan Institute found that less than 1 in 10 jobs were accessible by a public transport that took less than an hour one way.

It stands to reason a worker who sees less pay rises, less opportunity, which has to spend more than 30% of their wage on rent while commuting for 45 minutes or more will eventually start resenting their working environment.

The question is- what can we realistically do about it?

Reinventing the Australian working life structures and boundaries 

There are no simple answers to the problem. High speed rail, decentralised town centres and the NBN may be some of the ideas that are floated to change working conditions. Job share is another, though how anyone can afford or justify a job share situation in city centres is questionable.

And of course anyone who has ever looked for a job in regional or rural Australia knows how limited the choices can be.

So how do we change our working lives for the better when economics, opportunity and infrastructure conspire against us?

Enter entrepreneurship. Where the dream of owning your own business has morphed into the desire to strike it rich and become a celebrity in the process. There is no shortage of million dollar success stories on which to whet your appetite.

It’s easy to sell a dream when the current system is creaking under pressure.

What garners less coverage of course is that 95% of startups fail, even funding doesn’t mean success and life on the top is never easy.

Celebrity bloggers are another addition to the business nouveau riche. Yet a Problogger report found the majority of bloggers make less than a cup of coffee per day. And that only 9% of bloggers make $1000 or more a month and a further 4% make more than $10K.

Add that 66% of small businesses fail within the first year.

So where is the freedom when the job security is still lacking? When the pay may be transient and the hours just as long if not longer?

Time to change your thinking

Nadine Champion is an Australian UFC fighter who not only won title belts, she beat cancer. She’s also had an extremely successful TEDx talk that has lead to a speaker career. Her motto is “change your thinking”.

In Nadine’s world, there is always going to be a challenge. There’s always someone to punch you in the face, make it difficult and be something you may not have anticipated. This is life in spades. So how we respond to the situation, how we change our thinking and make progress, then becomes paramount.

With our working life, there is one age old tradition that appears to get lost in the motivation for money, fame and prestige.

Shaking off the “why I am doing this job?” or “does this social media actually do anything?” feeling comes from purposeful work.

It comes from figuring out not what is cool with the crowd next to us or what might attract customers or what would please the boss. It comes from feeling as though the way we spend our time is useful. And that the things we spend our emotional and intellectual prowess on actually matter.

Where can you find meaning?

Finding the meaning within the work is useful. But it’s not always obtainable. Finding the meaning outside the work may also be another.

Channelling energy into side projects, family and community endeavour helps us feel connected. Even if our working life feels less appealing, these outside interests help propel us forward.

Pulling away from the passion myth and the go-getter set may be another. Being surrounded by people who want to be the second coming of Anthony Robbins or Richard Branson can get a little tiring after a time. Such comparison can drive us to do things to look successful as opposed to define what success means for us as individuals. Don’t be afraid to take a step back from group thinking and come to your own conclusions.

We might not be able to change our lives in the blink of the eye. Definitely nowhere at the rapid pace that self help or passion based entrepreneurship would like to sell us.

But we can stop, look and see what does and doesn’t give us purpose. We can look at what we do as people and find meaning. Extract joy from the labour we may resent through realising its purpose is to give us money to do the things we want to do. Or to focus on the experience of life as opposed to the externalised measures of status.

If the life you lead feels meaningful, the desire to be the richest, coolest and best abates. It’s replaced with a deep sense of feeling content and worthwhile.

That state of contentment may spur you on to be the famous, rich personality. Or it can give you peace in a world that is random and chaotic.

But what the feeling of meaning provides is a buffer from wanting to be all things to all people. It helps plug the tiny voices that ask if we’re measuring up to what we dreamed we would be. Our eyes become open to situations and people that provide a deeper sense of happiness not reliant on status or wealth.

And it gives us the freedom to enjoy life without feeling beaten by it. To feel OK with the little corner we’ve carved out, no matter what it may be.

Need a culture tune-up? I can HELP YOUR WORKPLACE or with your INDIVIDUAL WORKING LIFE. 

1 Comment. Leave new

  • You’ve hit the nail on the head Bek and I love the idea of approaching work as something that doesn’t just fulfill a need (money, social interaction, avoiding brain atrophy), but as something that gives us purpose and meaning. However, there’s a lot to be said for not putting all your purpose and meaning eggs in one basket and making sure you create meaning in the things you do for fun as well – spending time with friends and family, volunteering, pursuing creative endeavors. It all makes us richer, more interesting humans after all. Thanks for sharing this.


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