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The truth about work: Success not enough, employees want meaning

28 April 2006 David Bolchover

Problems, problems. Graduates are leaving university with academic training but lacking the skill to communicate.

Younger women, with their biological clocks, are plotting to leave their staunch colleagues holding the baby, as it were. And who wants those old wrinklies? They hardly look dynamic, do they?

Thank the Lord for those mid-career employees whom you can rely on for loyal commitment. Experienced but still energetic, ambitious but controlled, the financial demands of bringing up a family pushing them to achieve. They haven't yet got one eye on retirement and they're not turning up twice a week with a killer hangover like they used to. Without them, what are you left with?

But an article in this month's Harvard Business Review reveals that everything is far from well with these corporate stalwarts. In fact, employees between the ages of 35 and 55, dubbed "middlescents" by the authors, are apparently "burned out, bored and bottlenecked".

A survey of more than 7,700 US workers found that people in this age bracket work longer hours than their older and younger counterparts, yet only 33pc feel motivated by their work and 36pc believe they are in a dead-end job.

"Middlescents" are the least likely to say that their workplace is congenial or fun. They have the lowest satisfaction rates with their managers and the least confidence in senior executives. Many feel trapped by family and financial pressures. What's more, the trend of dissatisfaction is accelerating. "In short", conclude the authors, "far too many mid-career employees are working more, enjoying it less, and looking for alternatives."

So what explains this growing disillusionment?
One problem is the conjunction of vital career years and the busiest period of family responsibility. Thirty years ago, many 45-year-olds had grown-up children who had left home, and to put it bluntly, parents who were dead.

They were free to make the most out of their work. Nowadays, delayed (and multiple) marriages and increased longevity mean that many have to look after young children and care for elderly parents at precisely the same time that their jobs are becoming increasingly onerous.

But the social change that impacts most on this generation is the growing desire to get more out of life. "Earlier generations looked to their work for security and material success; the way to combat restlessness was usually to hunker down and focus on one's current job", say the authors. "Many of today's idealistic yet frustrated [employees] have different goals - they'd be willing to trade some of their current success for greater significance in their lives and work."

This development is clearly explained by psychologist Abraham Maslow's theory "the hierarchy of needs". In a pyramid of five basic needs, the individual feels each need in order once the preceding one has been satisfied.

They are physiological (food, water), security (shelter, safety), belonging (affection, group membership), esteem (self-esteem, status) and self-actualisation (making the most of one's abilities).

The fourth need in this pyramid, esteem, is now being satisfied more readily and widely than before. Increased wealth means that many can now display enhanced status. Many people possess qualifications that deter others from questioning their intellectual ability.

As many "middlescents" will have attained career success they are likely, by Maslow's logic, to hanker after the peak of the pyramid, self-actualisation.

This "middlescent" disaffection is still very much in its infancy. Given our pace of change it is likely that our grandchildren will have little interest in working lives spent in the offices we know.

Indeed, if we follow Marlows argument, this pace is set to get a lot quicker. He called the first four layers of the pyramid "deficiency" needs. If they are not satisfied, you experience anxiety and try to fulfil them. If they are satisfied, you feel nothing; you only feel the lack. Self-actualising intensifies the motivation to find more of the same.

To avoid losing good people or ending up with a lifeless body of workers, companies need to be developing strategies to deal with this problem. But how many are even aware that the problem exists?

Courtesy David Bolchover, the www.telegraph.co.uk

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