Reimagining Work

Written by on April 12, 2012 in Entrepreneurship - No comments

If you won the jackpot today, would you go back to work tomorrow? The question may sound absurd, but there are plenty of lottery winners who have done just that. There’s a waitress in Florida who went back to making $400 per week the day after winning $1 million, a German salesman who was told that he won $27 million only to tell the shopkeeper that he didn’t have time to chat because he was late for work and a British shelf stacker who returned to her job at Walmart after winning $3.9 million. This seemingly strange phenomenon becomes less strange once we admit what we all know: work isn’t just about paying the bills.

Making money is important and particularly with student loans, mortgages, health issues and little people with big educational needs, the urgency increases. But, even if we took the job just to pay the bills, those 40+ work hours add up to more than just dollar signs, they make up a large part of our identity. Hence why everyone’s favorite cocktail party question is, so what do you do?

Even if you’re not the cocktail party type (and I’ll admit that I’m more of a PBR girl myself), all those hours are bound to affect you. Maybe you spend the best years of your life thinking about how to provide excellent customer service at Walmart, maybe you spend them manipulating derivatives on Wall Street. Maybe you love all your co-workers, maybe you don’t. Whatever flavors go into your work wine, you’re not going to get out of there without a little tinge on your teeth.

Most Americans report being satisfied with their jobs. Young people, however, are not drinking the Kool-Aid. We consistently report low rates of job satisfaction and seem to change careers as though it’s, well, our job. This might be because there simply aren’t many jobs to go around, let alone good ones. It might be because we’re young and don’t really understand what it means to pay the bills since most of us still bum off our parents. But I think it’s something deeper.

In the past 30 years technology and globalization have revolutionized the way that we interact with each other, burning through any semblance of a boundary between our jobs and the rest of our lives to the point where many of us can, quite literally, work from anywhere. Even in Niger, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world, my Nigerien friends from Peace Corps regularly send me emails from their smart phones. The potential to transform our world is limitless and it is at our fingertips. All we need to do is dream.

Imagine a world where each of us strive to live up to our highest potential. Where we work on things that really matter, not just to our bank accounts, but to other human beings and to our planet. Naive? Maybe, but the idea of meaningful work is rapidly gaining traction, with over 500 companies certified as “B Corps,” a type of corporation that uses business to solve social and environmental problems, and the rise of talent agencies like ReWork that focus specifically on helping people find impact jobs.

While the impact or “social enterprise” sector may still be small, it’s likely to grow as more people express interest in finding meaningful work. As one of the founders of ReWork, Nathaniel Koloc, told me,”For many people, work becomes meaningful when there is positive impact associated with it. It’s possible to re-frame and re-envision traditional business offerings with a lens of social and environmental impact. We can transition hundreds of thousands of jobs to being “impact” jobs if more companies come to understand the value (both financially and culturally) of working to make the world a better place as part of their core business.”

And, as I’ve pointed out before, making an impact isn’t limited to the white-collar elite. Research has shown that across sectors, employees who believe that they are making an impact are happier and more productive. Companies from Southwest to Trader Joe’s and Costco have all found that by investing in their workforce and empowering employees to take control over small decisions, they are more profitable and their employees are more dedicated. Imagine if more organizations began to take on this practice, investing in their workforces and challenging their employees to take on some of our society’s most pressing problems.

And the impact sector isn’t limited to the United States. Ashoka, a non-profit leader in social enterprise sphere, has identified 3,000 social entrepreneurs from over 60 countries, all of whom are working on finding solutions to the world’s toughest problems. As Thomas Friedman pointed out in a recent op-ed, climate change is making the world’s toughest problems even tougher with land, water and food tensions contributing to massive uprisings like the Arab Spring. With nearly half of the world’s population under 25 we are going to need a lot of new jobs, but we need them in the right sectors. By reimagining what these jobs should look like we can help ensure that more young people find meaningful work building a more sustainable and resilient economy.

Reimagining work amidst a global recession might seem crazy but as Albert Einstein famously said, the true definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Lisa Curtis

A frequent blogger for Forbes and The Huffington Post, Lisa currently manages communications for Solar Mosaic and is working on starting a nutrition-focused social enterprise called Kuli Kuli. Previously, Lisa wrote political briefings for President Obama in The White House, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger and managed communications for an impact investment firm in India.

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