Throughout the initial stages of the pandemic, a period of accelerated change contrasted with the stillness of lockdowns. Behind the scenes, a different kind of crisis was quietly unfolding, where people were suddenly confronted with existentialist questions surrounding topics like identity and meaningfulness.
For years, there had been a sense of life lived on autopilot. For some this brought predictability and comfort, while others felt frustrated and stuck. Not everyone had the time for such introspection, but for those who did it was a reassessment of personal values and whether their lives (and their work) was in alignment with them.
The Search for Meaning
During 19th century industrialization, the prevailing view was that labor was no more than a transaction of time and energy to meet company targets and fulfill the basic physiological needs of its workforce, who were often faced with harsh, unrelenting work conditions.
As labor movements began to push for reforms, living standards improved. Over time, work became associated with personal identity, and as the needs of workers expanded beyond food and shelter, the question of how to measure employee engagement became increasingly relevant.
The Full Self
William Kahn defines employee engagement as a person’s ability to harness their “full self” to a role physically, cognitively and emotionally. A key component of this is “psychological meaningfulness”, or the sense that the investment of their time and energy is rewarded and that they are appreciated for their unique skills in addition to their overall contribution to the company.
In recent years, authenticity has become a key topic. At a personal level, many people have found that key aspects of their life (such as their job) did not align with their own personal values, and that this long term suppression of the self often had negative mental and emotional consequences.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
Historically, younger generations tend to be bellwethers for change, so it comes as little surprise that the two generations spearheading economic movements like “quiet quitting” and the “Great Resignation” were millennials and Gen Z (with older generations following later). For millenials, this is in part a response to burn-out resulting from “hustle culture”. For Gen Z, it’s a rejection of what didn’t work for previous generations in favor of new approaches.
Typically, the Baby Boomers and Gen X workers aspire towards collectivism. While this helps to foster a much-needed sense of belonging, this approach also risks segueing into unhealthy “family” dynamics, where unreasonable demands for loyalty and leaky personal boundaries are the norm, and negates things that help create meaningfulness, such as recognition for individual achievements.
The Key to Employee Engagement
According to the Institute for Employment Studies, this sense of feeling involved and valued is the strongest driver for employee engagement. While the first part could be attributed to collectivist values, the second part could just as easily be ascribed to the individualist approach broadly held by millennials and Gen Z.
As a concept, meaningful work is largely subjective, which points to individualistic personal values. Alternatively, the team-building aspect of collectivism is key to helping individuals understand the value of their work as part of the bigger picture. While some hold an either-or view, it’s theoretically possible to integrate the two, taking valuable knowledge and information from the past and using it alongside innovative ideas.