Seeking engagement in the workplace

Or, Seeking a Job That Fits You

Happy Worker

Photo credit: thechrisdavis (flickr)

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m enjoying (for the second time) the book Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work. One important topic covered is engagement. Engagement, in this context, means actively contributing to the workplace in a way that goes beyond just “getting enough done.” Engaged workers bring energy, creativity, and commitment to the job. They think of new ways to do things and choose to put in the extra work to make sure things are not only done, but done well.

The alternatives are satisfied workers – people who are just doing enough and are just satisfied enough to keep doing the same things as they look toward retirement, or worse – unhappy workers.

Apparently in older generations it was less common to seek engagement in the work place. Work and play were thought of as two completely different things. When I think of what I know of my father’s generation’s work attitudes, it certainly matches that. You had work, which mostly men did in order to support a family, and home, where mostly women managed households and family activities. Some people were lucky enough to love their work, but many more went through the routine and built traditional careers, trusting that if they were devoted to the company, the company would provide. Reasonable, since in those days, it usually did.

Today things are different, and separation lines are blurred or gone. We’ve been encouraged to think outside the box since we were children. I’m thankful for that. But the freedom to stop and think about whether the traditional ways will make you happy and satisfied can lead to a different view of the purpose of work, marriage, and life itself.

Less willing to accept “it’s always been done that way” as a reason to do anything, I, anyhow, came to the conclusion that if I’m going to spend so much of my time working to make a living, I might as well get as many benefits as I could. Why not look for fulfillment, a challenge, a chance to learn, a career that makes you feel good about your work?

Propaganda Poster for a Happy Worker!

Propaganda Poster for a Happy Worker!

I certainly saw this difference in expectations for engagement when I started in the workforce in 2009. Coming from an excellent university where I was surrounded by the most engaged, passionate, inspired, and inspiring members of my generation, I naively asked my co-workers a number of what I thought were “getting to know you” questions such as “what made you want to be in this field?” only to receive puzzled stares and flat responses such as “I didn’t.”

While I’ve obtained marginal help from elders in my field in trying to determine where I could find what I’m looking for, I’ve also been disappointed by how many people seem to have barely considered how a position aligns with their passions, interests, desires. I can’t help but think they’re all floating in a big river, turning this way or that because that’s how it’s done and that’s where the currents took them.

I don’t know if it’s because of my propensity for depression, but that sounds horrifying to me! What if that next fork in the river splits, one side a relaxing and fun path with just the right amount of challenge, and the other either leads to raging rapids or a desolate flat stretch with nothing to look at or do? I’d want to pull up google earth and figure out what the options are, not just let the currents carry me where they will.

Anyhow, for a number of reasons, my generation (sometimes called Millenials, Gen Y, or the Net Generation) seeks engagement in greater numbers than before.

So, how does one find engagement at work? The author, Tamara Erickson, suggests that a good place to start is by identifying times in the past that you were engaged, and noting the conditions such as where you were, what you were doing, who you were doing it with, and what type of pressure you were doing it under.

Here are a few of her suggestions of what type of experiences to recall:

-A time when you lost yourself in your work, unaware of the time that was passing or other distractions

-A time when you felt proud of something you accomplished and happy to acknowledge your involvement in it

-A time when you put in extra effort and time to make sure a job was not just completed, but done well

-A time when your enthusiasm and energy to work on a project led you to successfully convince others to invest their efforts too

Those are just a couple of her suggestions. I know they’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. I hope they’ve given you something to think about too – I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Still Looking, and Biding My Time

Since I wrote my last post I’ve still been looking hard. I’ve sent out around 30 job applications since April – its about all I can manage with the full time job, startup company, and lots of time spent with Husband!

I had 3 more interviews, to varying degrees of near success. Two were with a company that would offer an amazing blend of uses for my analytics skills, software savvy, project management abilities, and crafty creativity. The company said they were looking for more experienced people but encouraged me to continue to apply to postings for jobs at their company and suggested that I might fit well once their teams have added some more experienced leaders.

The other went extremely well and appeared to be my dream work environment (a bunch of computer geeks under 35, leather couch and beanbag chairs, huge flat screen tv with Xbox and ps3, and a shared mission I could get behind). The interviewer (a cofounder) even signed up on the spot for a trial of a service I recommended. It was very disappointing two weeks later to learn that they had decided not to hire outside the company. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone so far as to name a service that would help them! Lesson learned.

During all this time, my frustrations at work have increased, although I’ve also learned to deal with them better. I’ve waxed and waned about pushing for changes at work that I think will not only make me happier but also improve office operations, especially for the others in my generation, who now make up nearly half of the staff.

Plugged InOn that note, I recently started re-reading a book that helped me last year: Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work. The book is great because it goes over the events and trends that shaped my generation and how older people’s worldviews were shaped and how they view us, and it offers advice for how to navigate the generational gaps and how to find a job you like.

I may write more about this as I find so much of the content useful. On that note, I’d love to hear from my readers about their experiences working together with people who span different generations and have widely varying ways of working. Some of the main conflict points I’ve experienced are due to differences in ways of communicating and using technology, motivations for work, and approaches to hierarchy vs cross-level collaboration.

What did you find most frustrating when working with different generations? How did you make it work?

Looking again

Well it’s a year since I last job-hunted, and here I am ready to go again. I’m eager to move on from my current place, but this past year hasn’t been a total bust career-wise. I’ve learned about a field entirely new to me – environmental remediation. And while there are aspects of it that I am quite happy with, I think when looking at the big picture it’s not the right field for me. The other integral thing I’ve learned this past year is about what type of work environment I want, and what will and won’t be conducive to my happiness.

It has been 10 months since I started this job, and for the past 6 I have been various levels of unhappy with it. It was December when I started thinking I should look elsewhere, but not until January that I really came to a firm conclusion that I want to leave.

My final reasoning is based on what I was looking for when I took this job, which is rather low-paying for my skill set. There were 3 main reasons I was happy to accept that pay:

1) I wanted to learn about environmental engineering and environmental science.
2) I wanted to be making a positive contribution to society.
3) I wanted a job that wouldn’t ask me to be a workaholic.

I think I only got 1 of those for sure, and that one (# 3) was in overkill! Not only are most of my coworkers not workaholics, anumber of them seem to be perpetually in do-the-least-possible-without-getting-fired mode.

The other two I got to some degree, but from what I’ve learned, I don’t think this field will wholly fulfill my needs, especially for challenge, creativity, and connection to the people whose lives I’m working to improve.

I actually think it may be time for a career shift, staying in STEM but moving to a different field and industry. I have a clearer understanding of my needs in a career and in a job, well beyond the factors I considered when choosing a major for my degree. I now realize how much I value community, work culture, location, societal effects, and the structure of a typical workday.

As I explore this further, I’m reading a book about career change, with the major questions to consider in order to determine the career path that is best for all of your needs. I hope to write about this as I ponder these questions.

Culture Shock

I hardly know where to begin. When in doubt, start in the middle. No no just kidding.

The beginning, well I guess that would be background. Through my life history, my friends, my family, my environment, and the pursuits I’ve chosen and been fortunate enough to dive deeply into…through all of these things I’ve seen a wide strata of society. I’ve gotten closer to some parts than to others, but I’ve been exposed to a lot.

From my own family, on one side from a dark history during the Great Depression to the behaviors that desperation helped develop in my grandfather, and from the lives of immigrants in the early 20th century to the multi-generational struggle towards both accepting and respecting ourselves. On the other side, from an American history spanning back to pre-Civil War North Carolina to growing family during the Great Depression to a classic post-WWII 1950s American family to life with those Yankees up in Massachusetts. With all these different personal histories merged into the story that led to my existence, I grew up learning how to be compassionate, open-minded, and accepting of different backgrounds and the personal struggles that so many face.

In my youth, I also met all sorts of people, mostly New England suburbanites. From the kind and gratious modern immigrants who attended my public school for it’s strong English as a second language program to the friends whose parents worked extra jobs so that their kids could train in competitive figure skating to the richer skaters who drove only Mercedes and lived in the huge houses in the Boston suburbs with the best schools. Despite our varied backgrounds, we learned to work together and support each other, many of us driven by the shared passion for the sport of figure skating and our dreams of achieving within it.

In my college years I moved to NYC to attend a very selective school, and there I met a whole new slew of people. There were hard-working kids that were the first in their families to go to college, over-achievers of middle-class means (where I’d place myself), and no shortage of students who had spent most of their summers working to improve themselves in educational or athletic sleepaway camps or travelling the world with their families. They were the most foreign to me; they chatted about the latest Tiffany’s fashions, had a credit card from Daddy and a fake ID, and many had not yet worked for pay themselves. But still among this diversity of backgrounds I found unity with many, for we shared an intellectually curious attitude and were lucky enough to be a part of a great academic community, full of energetic people eager to make a difference in their communities.

Then I met my husband, and I learned up close about another stratum of society. His family history included Irish Catholic and German Jewish immigration to Brooklyn in time to see the mobs and ethnic strife close up, extreme intelligence of the sort that sends a kid to college as a young teenager, and some serious hardships that would have tested anyone’s emotional resilience and ability to carry on. That side of his family was poorly equipped to deal with the things thrown at them, and by the late 20th century had lost most of the resources their family had developed towards decent lives in Brooklyn.

His family history also included a large Guatemalan family, of which one particular daughter faced many struggles, losing her first husband to what she later learned was an escape into exile to protect his life in the face of an imminent coup, finding herself left alone to raise their young son. She later remarried and had another son, but his father didn’t treat her right, and she realized she had to get out for her safety and sanity. That was when she found her way to America, meeting a man in late 1970s Brooklyn whom she would marry and have two more sons with. The oldest son was my Husband, who spent his childhood in Brooklyn before his father disappeared and his mother, his brother, and him moved to a cheaper apartment in the Bronx. There they witnessed and experienced many hardships, but always were buoyed by the love, strength, and the incredible will of his mother. Despite their material struggles, his mother, a teacher, always emphasized the value of education, and with her support and the intellect passed to them from their father, both he and his brother were accepted into an exclusive upper east side private school, the tuition covered by the school’s endowment. There my husband made friends that he’s held on to since, people who I’ve come to value as friends as well. Despite their varied backgrounds, they too bonded over shared intellectual curiosity and worldviews and their shared environment during that formative phase of life.

Now I’ve started my first real-world job, in an office setting, and it’s a new adjustment. I thought that everyone here would work together towards the office’s shared mission, but if that’s happening I’m not sure. People seem mired in their daily struggles, which is understandable. They have a wide range of attitudes towards work, and it doesn’t leave me with the feeling that we’re all working together towards a shared goal.

In that absence it seems that they try to bond over what they assume to be shared experiences or mundane small talk: the weather, their summer vacation destinations, the search for housing in NYC, marriage struggles, or drunken nights. Somehow it turns out that my experiences in these areas are dissimilar from those of my colleagues – I dread summer; the only destination vacation I’ve taken in the last 5 years was my honeymoon and we still carry debt from it; they seem to think that $2,000 is a reasonable or even affordable and good rent; I’m incredibly happy in my marriage and don’t take it for granted; and I have little interest in bar hopping. I often come away from these conversations feeling more disconnected from my coworkers instead of less.

But what really gets to me is their attitude. Sometimes it seems like they’ve all given up. Throughout my life I’ve always given immense thought to my choices and whether they were likely to maximize my happiness. I’ve always tried to separate those choices from the general “expectations” that I perceived society had for people my age. As a result I feel immense pleasure and drive to do the work that I’ve chosen. I’m struggling to shake off my surprise and disappointment that my colleagues don’t appear to approach work with the same attitude. There is a lot more negative energy than I was prepared to handle. And I’m lost to find things that can help me feel connected to my coworkers.

The positive side of this is that I’ve begun exploring resources intended to aid my generation to adjust and succeed in the workplace. I’ll definitely write about this as I learn more. Meanwhile, dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

How much we spend on debt and health

Currently, for my husband and I combined, we spend $1,200 each month on health costs and debt. For health costs, this includes prescriptions, doctor’s visits, and a minimum of tests. For debts, this includes credit card, student loan, non-loan overdue university bills, bank fees (many of which we wouldn’t get hit with or would be lower if we had more money), and back taxes (from when we didn’t manage to pay enough estimated self-employment tax during that period when Husband worked full weeks and unpaid overtime but was only a “consultant” – just so that his employer wouldn’t have to provide him with benefits). And the monthly costs may increase soon since we’ll no longer be able to defer payment on my school loans, probably to about $1,400.  We are 24 and 29.  I’ve read that people in my generation have higher levels of debt in their 20′s than most previous generations.

With regards to credit card debt, I think I definitely fell victim to some predatory lending, and now I’ve got a debt with a really high interest rate and high over limit and missed payment fees too. I think I should have known better than that, but it’s too late now to ruminate. Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to see if I can get the rate down or transfer the balance to a card with a lower rate.

And now, I arm you with knowledge from Co-op America’s Real Money about predatory lending:

Predatory lending: Predatory lending is a fast-growing practice in which financial institutions use high fees, exorbitant costs, and other unscrupulous lending practices to take advantage of targeted groups—often the elderly, students, and low-income people. In the case of credit cards, banks may market cards to these groups that “contain hidden transfer charges, exorbitant late fees, and exploding interest rates,” according to the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

It’s not just target groups that suffer from such practices. A Woodstock Institute report states that “the intricate web of penalties and fees implemented by the credit card industry may be one of the key factors for the high level of indebtedness among Americans. In January 2005, the average US household had seven credit cards and carried a balance of $14,000, the highest level of debt ever.”

I feel a little better knowing I have less than average credit card debt…

Another Millenials article speaks to me

In the past few months I’ve continually come across mentions of Millenials or Gen Y, and since I know I fell in around there age-wise and identify most strongly with the young people of today, they have always piqued my curiosity. So I immediately clicked through to the article when I saw Bob Herbert’s op-ed “Here Come the Millenials” on the list of most e-mailed articles on the NYTimes.

When I first got there, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought, “Here’s what other people are reading about my generation.” But it actually turned out to make me more self-aware of how not alone I am, how many, many others who grew up in the same America I did are facing the same things.

A number of studies, including new ones by the Center for American Progress in Washington and by Demos, a progressive think tank in New York, have shown that Americans in this age group are faced with a variety of challenges that are tougher than those faced by young adults over the past few decades. Among the challenges are worsening job prospects, lower rates of health insurance coverage and higher levels of debt.

This struck me hard. Husband and I absolutely face all three of those (bold emphasis mine). While we are highly educated and skilled enough that we are both confident we can find jobs when needed, the choices may be more limited than we’d originally hoped.

When I met Husband, he was working as an elementary school computer teacher, despite his degree in CS and experience in web jobs during the late 90′s. He didn’t want to do this forever, but it was a job, and it paid something, so he was there. He had been doing web design on the side, and I encouraged him to try to find a job in that full-time. He was miserable in that job, so with his freelance plus my work-study income, we decided that he could quit, quickly improve his web portfolio, and find a new job. That winter, he did, but it didn’t include benefits, vacation, etc. He took it as a way to get his foot (back) in the door, and worked for a year without health insurance coverage. Meanwhile, we both had racked up debt on my credit card for things like, oh, eating.

The story could continue but I’m going to stop there. You get the point. Similar themes as we progressed through the next 3 years, and here we are. My being kicked out of school leaves me without health insurance, and Husband has been unwisely living without it for a year and a half, despite the fact that he’s on medications and has some medical issues. For the summer I have work lined up, but, surprise surprise, without the possibility of benefits. I just looked up yesterday the cost of putting Husband and I on a health insurance plan for the self-employed – $700 or more combined. Each month.

Among other things, we are fed up with the government. We see that in a completely free-market economy the rich get rich and the poor get, well, shit on. We both think that while free-market works well for a lot of things (like motivation for work to be done well and efficiently), we need more safety nets, more regulations to ensure opportunities for the poor and minorities, and more compassion in American politics.

Later in the article, Herbert writes:

According to the study: “Millennials mostly reject the conservative viewpoint that government is the problem, and that free markets always produce the best results for society. Indeed, Millennials’ views are more progressive than those of other age groups today, and are more progressive than previous generations when they were younger.”

The study is right on, because that’s exactly how we feel. This is not the America I learned about growing up. I see so many people in worse situation than ours (around me everyday when I go home to my apartment in the Bronx or any time I visit Husband’s family), and Husband and I both are fed up with the political state of the country. Even most of the “liberals” aren’t liberal enough for us. You think America offers equal opportunity? Bullshit.