Work sucks. But does it have to?

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Work sucks. Then you die?

It’s a handy thing to put on t-shirts, sure, but for a while it was a tongue in cheek joke — kinda like my friend’s dad always telling us “The thing with life is, no one gets out alive.”

But the problem with the “work sucks” joke is that it ultimately became extremely true for a lot of people.

I want you to choke on this tailpipe of a statistic: there are about 1.2 billion full-time employees in the world. (That’s not yet the statistic.) Per Gallup research (here it comes), 15% of them are engaged with what they do. So that’s about 180 million people — maybe more than half the U.S. — who actually like going to work and dealing with their boss, etc. But it’s 180M out of over a billion. In Japan, 94% of employees report being disengaged at work — and they’re considered a relatively productive nation!

85% of us are going to work and just not feeling it.

Work sucks.

But what’s the implication — and what do we do?

The greatest dichotomy of the last 30 years, i.e. why work sucks

Keep this one simple:

Technology is moving at a breakneck pace, and management ideas haven’t changed at all.

That’s the essence of the entire problem. Technology made “seat time” obsolete. It made “command and control” essentially a punchline. But those things persist, despite the illogical nature of them persisting. This is why work sucks globally for so many people.

But why do they persist, grasshopper?

Because at a basic psychological and social level, work has absolutely nothing to do with productivity. It’s an exercise in showing what you own/control and using that to validate your self-worth. Until we admit that to ourselves, we ain’t gonna get anywhere on this topic.

Why “work sucks” is a problem

No one gets to skip the Second Act of life, and in advanced economies, the Second Act is usually 50 hours/week of work for, oh, I dunno, 40–45 years? This is all gonna change with automation, of course — but it hasn’t yet.

You probably spend more time at work than you spend anywhere for the largest chunk of your life. So if you think work sucks, wouldn’t that be a bad thing? And then if you really wanna get deep here — let’s do it! — think of all these societal problems, like people feeling disenfranchised, loneliness, etc. You don’t think there’s a tie between all those issues and how much work sucks? I got a bridge I can sell you.

How do we make work suck less?

Let’s say we’ve got a 25-year window until automation is taking 50% or more of jobs. In 30 years or so, then, we gotta figure out what to do with all the guys who were gonna spend their middle years being workaholics. But that problem doesn’t need to be solved now. Here’s what we gotta do now:

  • Care about people
  • Try to change our management approaches to fit with the current time and not the 1950s
  • Determine if there’s something out there which could replace standard hierarchy
  • Stop lip-servicing training and learning opportunities
  • Probably move some of these functions away from HR

Is this going to happen?

Good Lord no. Most companies are a giant, profit-seeking mess. They’ll continue to be that way because individuals at the top, and those that replace them, are looking for perks — not “the feels” for doing right by others down the chain. The next thing that will change work is work, well, going away. Good news then: work can’t suck if there’s less work!

But what if we could eliminate “work sucks?”

Let’s say we went from 15% to 30% globally engaged workers. That’d be 360 million. Not bad. If we went to 45% — we tripled it! — that’d be half a billion people happy with their jobs. Think of what a society where 1 in 2 full-time workers is happy for most of 8–10 hours/day might look like. Just allow yourself that reality for one moment.

Don’t we owe it to ourselves to get rid of how much work sucks?

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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