Updated: Jan 23
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the graves with their song still in them." - Henry David Thoreau
The Office: A Caricature of Today's Workplace
In 2005, over 11 million people tuned in to NBC to watch the The Office, a comedy about the mundane and seemingly meaningless work of the employees of Dunder Mifflin, a dying regional paper and office supply distributor. The show became a phenomenon and instant favorite of millennials who were coming of age in a time when jobs were scarce and they were settling for any job that would give them a paycheck, even if it meant a boss as incompetent and offensive as Michael Scott. This seems to be a caricature of Americans’ modern view of work: a meaningless means to a mediocre end. A paycheck that allows us to enjoy the truly meaningful things in life from time to time.
In our piece Why Do We Work? we said you have a unique contribution to make to this world. And every day that you don't share it, you will feel a nagging sense of frustration, restlessness, and dissatisfaction.
Unfortunately, today's workplace is saddled with frustration and dissatisfaction. The majority of people feel like slaves to their jobs, and life is reduced to paying the bills and living for the weekend. This is the new reality that shapes our current expectations of work. Today people now choose their jobs and try to fit their life in the margins. And you work to maintain a lifestyle you can't enjoy because you are trapped in your office, strapped to your desk, and wrapped up in the repetition of a monotonous life.
The Sad Statistics
"Working hard for something you love is called passion. Working hard for something you don't is called stress." -Simon Sinek
Gallup has been measuring employee satisfaction for years. After two decades, 25 million people, and 189 countries, the numbers are out, and they're not pretty. Only 13% of people feel engaged in their work. 63% of us are not engaged, putting little energy into our work. The rest of us are actively disengaged, and actually hate our jobs. Work has become a source of frustration rather than fulfillment for about 90% of the world’s workers. Think of the social, emotional, intellectual, and economic waste that this number represents. 90% of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing in places they would rather not be.
According to ABC News, Americans work more than anyone in the industrialized world, take less vacation, work longer days, and retire later.
70% of workers experience stress-related illness
34% think they will burn out on the job in the next two years
Los Angeles Times reports that there is a 33% increase in heart attacks on Monday mornings.
According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people die at 9:00am Monday morning, than any other time of day, or any other day of the week.
Entrepreneur Magazine adds that there is a 25% increase in work-related injuries on Mondays.
Male suicides are highest on Sunday nights, when men realize that their careers, and possibly their finances, are not where they want them.
To make matters worse, in the documentary Happy, filmmaker Roku Belic brings our attention Japan, and its rise from the devastation of World War II to economic prominence. However, this commitment to rebuild sparked an epidemic that has become known in the Japanese culture as "karoshi," which means to work oneself to death.
Karoshi , or "occupational sudden mortality", has been legally recognized as a cause of death since the 1980s, and is most often the product of major medical causes such as heart attack and stroke, due to stress and starvation diet. This trend became widespread in other parts of Asia. In South Korea, the same phenomenon is called gwarosa. In China, a variation on the epidemic, overwork-induced suicide, also has its own word: gualaosi.
Our workplace is marked by stress, depression, and cynicism. We subject ourselves to corporate politics, office gossip, and other maladies that come from cramming people into a concrete box.
Where Did We Go Wrong?
For millions of people around the globe, life has regressed into paying bills and living for the weekend. But how did this happen?
Adam Smith is considered one of the the fathers of the Industrial Revolution. But he was convinced that human beings were by their very nature lazy, and wouldn’t do anything unless you made it worth their while. And the only way you made it worth their while was by incentivizing and giving them rewards. He believed that was the only reason anyone ever did anything. And so, the factory system was born, and we experienced the transformative effects of mass production and division of labor.
This era certainly produced economic abundance. But as capitalism developed, jobs were stripped of all the other features that make work worthwhile. Factory jobs were repetitive, demeaning, and soulless. Interestingly, Adam Smith recognized this, and said that people who worked in assembly lines “generally become as stupid as it is possible for a human being to become.” Nevertheless, he would use workers as a means to an end with incentives and pay. So millions of people around the world trudged off to work each day, without any expectation of meaning, engagement, creativity or challenge. And because their jobs gave no reason to work except for the paycheck, they worked for the paycheck. And so, Smith’s misguided idea of why people work became true.
But Adam Smith was wrong about the attitudes and aspirations that drive us. Before the industrial revolution, work was still hard. But to work as farmers, craftsmen, shoe cobblers, and shopkeepers offered people a fair amount of discretion, autonomy, and variety in what they did each day. It gave them a chance to use their ingenuity to solve problems, to innovate effective ways to do their work, and opportunities to become masters of their craft. All of that was left behind when people walked through the factory doors.
The Systems and "Script"
The structures put in place through the Industrial Revolution, and reinforced by the school systems and social sciences, systematically deprived people from fulfillment from their work. In doing so, they have deprived them from an important source of satisfaction, and created inferior workers in the process. But with the increase in abundance, and according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we no longer worry about putting food in our belly or a roof over our head. We have more than enough, but something is missing. And we are finally starting to ask ourselves, 'what on earth am I here for?'
You recognize the pain, the strain, and the draining effects of a life lived by someone else's rules. We live by what author and entrepreneur M.J. Demarco artfully calls "the Script": the cultural conditioning for a mediocre life. We climb the ladders, chase the pay, only to look back on a life filled with regret and remorse. You were not born to slave 9-5, Monday through Friday, pay bills, and then die. You don't want to look back on your life and realize there's still this rich and unlived life inside of you. You want to make a change, but it's so hard to let go of what you know.
Stress comes from a failing to align your work with your passions, skills, purpose, personality, and priorities. Right now, the majority of people don't find their work meaningful, we are starved purpose, and we are paying too high a price. And we do this willingly, in the name of "job security". But times are changing, and "job security" has taken on a completely different shape, in the wake of a financial collapse, the rise in technology, and the blossoming of a new type of economy. Today, Adam Smith's proverbial factories no longer define our workplace. We're seeing a shift that is changing the way we work forever.