Work, just as you’d like it

When he released ‘Living for the Corporation’ in 2005, Irish singer-songwriter, Paul Brady, captured the downbeat mood of a generation. One verse in particular conveys the underlying desperation that permeates much of corporate life today: Boss talkin’ productivity/It’s a sin to fall behind/I’m wondering should I walk away/Lose my job or lose my mind. Yet it wasn’t always this way, points out Sara Robinson in a lengthy exploration of the 40-hour work week. “For most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive,” Robinson says. “And the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot.” From Henry Ford onward, executives came to recognise the strong link between productivity and nurturing healthy and committed employees who worked reasonable hours. Things changed with the emergence of Silicon Valley and the obsessive “sci-tech personality”, Robinson says. It became “implicitly understood that to ‘passionate’ people, 40-hour weeks were old-fashioned and boring,” she says. “In the new workplace, people would find their ultimate meaning and happiness in the sheer unrivalled joy of work.” Wrong. As crashing productivity and engagement rates have demonstrated, that approach is unsustainable. “This insanity has to stop,” Robinson argues. “Our bosses are deleting resources from the human capital pool without replenishing them.” Creativity expert, Michelle James, is more upbeat, pointing to an emerging paradigm of work “where financial generativity (making money) is only part of the whole and not, as in the conventional paradigm, the central bottom line…or even the only bottom line”. The new ‘work’ will be more “life-giving”, encompassing meaning, creativity and even spirituality as well as earning capacity. James’ belief: “We can create work, businesses and organisations that alive, creative, adaptive and holistically generative by establishing new foundations.”

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