Reading Gee’s chapters on the “new capitalism” with promises of an “enchanted workplace” could be quite compelling. Except that I already work in the “new capitalism” so it doesn’t feel very new at all. In fact, it's the only work environment that I have known, ranging across several different organizations. I’m also quite sure that I haven’t used the word “enchanted” or “utopia” to describe my job beyond the sugar high induced glow of new hire orientation. There are a lot of promises in his words that can sound tremendously appealing if you haven't experienced that world yet. I do give him credit for having a clear vision about a new world order in the late 1990's. He does describe some aspects very accurately.
“Workers hired from the neck down only had to follow directions and mechanically carry out a rather meaningless piece of the process…” (Gee, p. 26). This statement makes me want to study workers from the post World War II who had production jobs. How did they really feel? Were they empty inside because their jobs didn’t have meaning? Were they secretly wishing for more? What did they want to do instead? What were their dreams? Because I’m quite certain that they didn’t dream of working in cubicles, where they sat on conference calls for 10 hours a day. Did they want to be doctors or lawyers? Did they want to go to college? Or were they like Rosa and felt tremendous satisfaction in the job they were able to do? Did they feel happy to pay their bills and feed their families? Were they too tired to want more? My assumption is that there was a mix of both, just as there is in today’s workforce. No sweeping conclusions can be made about any generation’s level of satisfaction with their work. We are each very different people, with our own set of hopes and dreams.
Gee’s writing reminds me of Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X is based on the premise that building a team of specialists will create a workforce who learns faster and will do a more efficient job than a team of generalists. Lewin developed Theory Y as a reaction to Theory X, giving workers a voice in the process, which is very similar to Gee’s “new capitalism”. Lewin focused not only on productivity but was the first to understand job satisfaction. Gee takes it one step further and refers to them as “knowledge workers” who have choices and inputs into the process.
It’s fair to say that many of us have evolved into Theory Y in today’s workplace. But are we happier? Gee makes promises of utopia and finding meaning in our work in his text. How many of you find meaning in your work (besides Greg)? It seems like we have evolved right past the point of job satisfaction. Now that we have the ability to become self-actualized, can we find happiness? Or will we constantly be searching for more? Searching for the next mountain to climb. The next goal post. The next challenge to overcome.
Have we outsmarted ourselves? Shawn Achor still thinks happiness is possible – link to his TEDtalk is below. I hope it’s 12 minutes that will give you a reason to smile and to give you some hope.