(This article was written together with Sofiah Jamil, a political analyst and Co-Founder of Hornbills: Concepts and Communications)
Thanks to the global pandemic, 2020 is touted as the year of reset.
But let’s get real; reset means change, and change is unnerving and often overwhelming. It’s been a year since the #newnormal has set in, and many still find it difficult to change. Whether it be teething issues in adapting new work arrangements or a complete wipe-out of business sales and trades dependent on the old normal, many anticipate that the availability of COVID19 vaccines will mean a return to the status quo. For these folks, 2020 is not a year of reset and change. It’s a year of adaptation.
So what would a real reset or change look like? We would like to suggest that rather than adapting to new work environments, it’s about redefining what work is. In particular, how can we create work that is meaningful and still pays the bills.
In this piece, we discuss why creating meaningful work matters in 2021. In terms of ‘why’, the first section discusses the systemic issues in the old normal that have been exposed and amplified by COVID19, and thereby warrant real change. The second section examines the deliberations workers may have in changing careers amidst a pandemic. Finally, we conclude with what to expect in 2021, and how to go about creating meaningful work in the new year.
Systemic issues in the old normal
COVID19 has not only exposed but also amplified three systemic issues in how we live and work. The first issue is that the global pandemic has exacerbated the acute vulnerabilities of those most affected by growing inequalities. While sandwiched middle-classes are also feeling the pressures of meeting ends meet with higher costs of living, the urban poor and informal sector are without doubt the most vulnerable. In metropolitan cities like Jakarta and Manila, lockdowns and other movement restrictions have resulted in an immediate loss of their daily wages, which many of them are dependent on. Ironically, these informal sector jobs, such as street food vendors and drivers, are a pillar of support for the urban economy, but have little available support (eg. social safety nets) when crises hit. What does this say about our modes and ethics on development? That some lives matter more than others?
This leads to the second issue, where the global pandemic has demonstrated that prioritising individuality over community responsibility has failed us. While some governments took decisive action to make masks mandatory, others — particularly in “the free West” — were still hemming and hawing over the use of masks and restrictions. The implications are clear — exponential increases in cases, overstrained frontline workers and further economic slowdown. At a micro-level, the prevalence of a scarcity mindset, where the loss of jobs and business revenues have made people react with the need to ‘‘feed ourselves first”. Not too surprising, given the rat-race and dog-eat-dog world that many urbanites are forced to put up with.
Yet, the rat-race has its limits. The third issue exposed by the pandemic is the toll that work-place and career disruptions have taken on mental health. In a recent survey by the World Health Organisation, the pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide while the demand for mental health is increasing. Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. These mental health issues potentially spill over to social issues with increased levels of alcohol and drug use, and stress in domestic households.
Do we really want to return to an old normal that is static and limits our ability to be resilient? An old normal where sections of society continue to benefit at the expense of others? To think of “reset” and pivot more holistically, it should not be limited to a reaction to adapt to a new normal. Rather, an opportunity to recalibrate one’s purpose and goals in life, and make a viable career.
Reevaluating Career Options in a Pandemic
One of the key ideas that may reach its denouement is the notion of the ‘dream job’. The job that offers a sense of fulfilment and accomplishment based on a steady progression along the ready-laid ladder of progression within an organization. In an environment of disruption and unpredictability, the hierarchical career ladder for many organizations will face its own pressures. Layoffs and job hiring freezes may call into question the entire meritocratic system within companies, leaving employees feeling vulnerable. Individuals in this difficult situation can likely respond in a risk-adverse fashion, seeking to downgrade their own long-term ambitions in their organization or choose to settle on lower-paying options.
Other employees may react differently and call into question these aspirations altogether. Working remotely and from home, with more time with family and more time for reflection, can provide the needed space to consider a strategic change in direction. A recent US-based survey from IBM has shown that 54% of workers prefer working remotely during the pandemic, while other surveys have seen higher levels of happiness reported from workers who worked remotely full-time than physically at the office. Some of the justification behind this may be due to the conveniences of working in the familiarity of one’s home and the financial incentive of saving on transport costs to work. Still, it is startling that a majority of the workforce prefer a different working environment altogether to their previous job, and hints perhaps at an underlying dissatisfaction with the traditional job sector. Waiting for a return to a pre-Covid 9-to-5 status quo can seem less enticing once a worker has experienced a detachment from the center of the rat race.
2021 seems primed to become the year in which a significant section of the workforce makes an ‘opt-out’ to choose work that resonates more with their own values. Demographically-speaking, this section is likely to be younger. Even pre-pandemic, millennials were more likely according to polling to seek work that connects to a sense of purpose, compared to baby boomers who tend to prioritize job security and higher financial compensation. This will likely be accelerated in the coming year, but also expect even more senior executives to redirect themselves to seek ways to contribute to a greater good.
As a general trend, the reasoning behind a shift from purely financially-oriented work to value-oriented work is clear. But the notion of ‘value’ and ‘purpose’ in regards to work is highly contextual and deeply personal. For some, it may mean creating a start-up or nonprofit towards addressing a unique social cause. For others, it may mean scaling down business to a more intimate Mom-and-Pop-shop level to better connect to community. But the bottomline is a shift in the source of satisfaction derived from daily engagement in one’s wares.
As we enter 2021, recalibrating our career options begins with recalibrating old normal thinking. First, how can we address the prevailing inequalities? What can be done to adopt an abundance mindset? And are we willing to have lower monetary expectations from such recalibrations?
These are questions that need further deliberation. What types of meaning and social impact people seek as an alternative will be explored in our future podcast on the 11th of January. To tune into the live recording of the podcast, like and follow the Breaking Silos with Sofiah Jamil Facebook page for more updates.