What is a person for (anymore)?
I've had an itch now for months that I haven't been able to scratch. Maybe you can help.
My itch came into sharp relief recently when I read a front-page article in The New York Times entitled Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers. Here are the opening lines: "Companies that are looking for a good deal aren't seeing one in new workers. Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people."
People, it seems, are going out of fashion as business assets. That may be an overstatement, but it holds some truth. In the words of one CEO, The Times article continues: "You don't have to train machines." To my ears, this view sounds a lot like the sentiment of Henry Ford who, decades ago, reportedly said something along the lines of All I want are men's hands, but I keep getting the whole person.
So, what's going on here? Is the industrial revolution making a comeback, only in new garb? Maybe, a better term for what we're now experiencing is the capital revolution, which includes costs as well as its benefits. Either way, it's having an unforeseen effect on the economy -- or is that, 'economies'?
I'm not referring to Wall Street and Main Street. Those distinct economies are old news. I'm referring to the emergence of a nearly discrete business economy and a separate human economy -- the former, based on healthy, growing businesses; the latter, based on healthy, growing people. These two forces used to be interdependent. Their need for one another was taken as an article of faith. That seems no longer to be the case. The business economy, which is fed by capital, is growing, if haltingly. The human economy, which is fed by jobs, is simply halting. That just can't be good for us long term. And this is the source of my itch.
I'm not so worried about businesses; with profit generation, they'll take care of themselves. I am deeply worried, however, about the humans who constitute the emerging, "other" economy -- particularly, those humans who are unemployed and underemployed. My concern isn't just because they need income in order to live. It is also for another, deeper reason: There is a whole swath of people, millions of them, whose lack of employment, and the dismal prospects for employment, is having a dehumanizing effect on their lives.
This fact is amplified by employers whose want-ads say "Unemployed need not apply." This state of affairs was called out in a recent AARP Bulletin article, Longtime Job Seekers Need Not Apply, which acknowledges the over-50 age bias but goes on to show how this attitude is leaching into the lives of all "unemployeds."
There is no way to fill the hole that such words dig into the souls of individuals who find themselves out of work through no fault of their own.
I work, therefore, I am
I'm constantly reminding people that they are not their labels; that their job doesn't define them. I believe that. Your identity is innate. It was there long before you started earning a paycheck. You are bigger than your job.
I also believe that people want, as the adage goes, to be productive members of society. It is a necessary condition of fulfilling one's humanness. Why? Because work is the best, single way to express who we are. In short, our identities need to be exercised like any other muscle, or they atrophy. And work is our number one gym. Dignity, spirit, and self-worth are the by-products of work, even if we don't necessarily love our job.
What is a person for?
Many things, obviously. That said, here are a few ideas that help explain why work matters, beyond the income it produces.
A person is for ...
Helping - Most people like the opportunity to lend a hand. It feels good and leads to better results all around. Such is the essence of teamwork.
Creating - You don't have to be a creative genius to want to build something. The act of creation is an innately human drive that finds utility in the workplace.
Imagining - We're born with this wonderful capacity and the world of work is a great place to use it to address an ever-present strategic question: What's possible?
Competing - Isn't just for athletes. Whether we're competing to get ahead in our career or as part of a company trying to get ahead in its market, we're naturally stimulated by the challenge competition brings.
Contributing - We're hard-wired to make a difference, even small ones. Contribution is the essence of value creation, whether personal or professional.
So, honor the person you are: Ask yourself how you help...create...imagine...compete...contribute to benefit others, as well as yourself.
Maybe you can't go out and hire -- or be hired by -- someone tomorrow. But you can invite people you know to answer these questions for themselves and, in doing so, remember what a person is -- what they are -- for.
That would help me scratch my itch. At least, a little.
The identity connection
In many ways, the seismic shift we're seeing in the jobs economy towards more highly skilled workers calls for people -- especially, the unemployed and underemployed -- to clarify, and promote, how they can make a
contribution that will be distinctive and relevant to an employer. This is a challenge of personal differentiation.
Personal differentiation may include more training in one's current trade or profession, or even training in new fields. But it also depends heavily on something closer to home: Getting a clear handle on one's identity as the source of their value-creating potential and then determining where these powerful capacities can be best applied to everyone's benefit.
Promoting who you are, not just what you can do isn't a conventional resume item. Yet, blending identity information into one's work history and goals can transform the impact of a resume, in ways that help you stand out from the proverbial crowd. This may be cold comfort for those suffering from chronic unemployment, but it is nonetheless true.
A final thought ...
In corporate circles these days, we talk about achieving purpose not just profit. But how can we celebrate a higher corporate purpose designed to benefit society, while pulling the employment rug out from under millions of people who are supposed beneficiaries of achieving that purpose?
I don't have ready answers, but I do have a blog and I invite you to weigh in at http://www.theidentitycircle.com/blog/
Making organizations and individuals more productive