Three years ago the big issue in career coaching was work-life balance, with many living in hope of finding a meaningful career that didn't lead to burn-out. Today, overwork is an even more important factor, but such a tough market it's much easier to push aside thoughts of a dream job.
I listen to career conversations in trains and coffee shops. They swing between talk of an 'ideal world' before reaching a tough-sounding reality check. Most recently overheard: "Unless a job is absolute hell it makes sense to stay put for a year or two". The nation's favourite binary thinking is "either I have a job I love doing or I get something which pays the bills".
Being 'realistic' sounds objective, but all too often it's a second-hand, diminished, view of what's out there. The interesting fact is that people get interesting jobs even in a recession, while others endure jobs they hate when work is plentiful.
It's all about passivity. When jobs are everywhere, it's easier to drift. Your career plan can be 'something interesting will come along'. This career 'sampling' has of course become the norm for the under-30s, but many have taken advantage of variety and choice – allowing the market to find us something moderately attractive. Now the dominant pressure is to take anything, keep your head down, and weather the storm.
What happened to that impulse to find happiness at work? Interestingly it's still there. Career coaches now often hear 'as I've been forced out of my job I might as well find something I enjoy doing'. The other side of the coin, of course, is the job seeker whose family and friends keep sending him job ads for the kind of job he has been trying to escape for two decades.
We need to take work satisfaction seriously. Firstly, because we spend more hours in work than any previous generation. Most of the hours where you are energised and focused between the age of 18 and 60 will be in work. Work informs so much of our self-esteem, learning, socialisation and security that for most adults the job you choose to do is the most important life decision after choice of partner.
Secondly, we need to recognise the part that job satisfaction plays in our overall state of happiness, and we need to happiness more seriously. For too long we've allowed happiness to be a fluffy concept occupied by therapists and disconnected from cut and thrust of work. We recognise that the external factors (money, security, status) are far less likely to make us happy at work, and that something deeper is required.
Richard Layard, in his book Happiness – Lessons From A New Science, writes of the very concrete and highly measurable seven factors that influence happiness worldwide.
For example, a bigger salary makes you no happier, but low or no pay will drag you down. What makes us measurably happier are close relationships, health, community involvement and fulfilling work where we have a measure of control over what we do.
In reality, of course, all work is a compromise between what you want out of life and what an employer is prepared to pay for. But most people are relatively happy in work when there is a 70 per cent overlap between their role and what they find fulfilling.
The kind of people who describe work like D H Lawrence as 'an absorbing game' have done something different. They don't have great career planning genes, but they have decided to actively match what they want to get out of their working lives with the real needs and aspirations of employers, and negotiated a job-shaped overlap.
Is it a comforting fantasy to believe that you can get a job you'll love? Even (especially?) in tough times we need to think about what we get out of our working lives, because with long hours and delayed retirement work is now such a big part of our total lifespan.
For some, it's a question of finding a better match between self and opportunity. For many it's about finding something worth getting up for on a Monday morning – activity that has some meaning, adds something to society, makes a difference.
Perhaps some sense even that work is about following some kind of calling – the word vocation is now applied to so many roles that we forget that one of the most important parts of a calling is that it probably isn't just about you. Nevertheless, it's a healthy response to life to ask the question 'what work would I like to be remembered for?'