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The Future of Work

Redefining ourselves amid a changing work force Add to ...

When Ivanka Trump “opened up” about her views on work/life balance earlier this week, I rolled my eyes and said out loud to myself, “This again?”

My first column for the Globe and Mail, in 2011, tackled this issue and, even six years ago, I hoped the term would die.

Naturally, professionals should not always feel overworked, and finding time to enjoy life – by all accounts – remains a healthy and productive approach. However, the term tends to zero-in on high-profile, attractive, working women who must somehow simultaneously run a company, dress immaculately and find the time to puree their own baby food.

It ignores the experiences of men, who struggle with their evolving role at home and in the work force, as well as lower-wage earners who faced work/life balance issues for years before it became trendy.

In covering our evolving relationship with work, I’ve realized that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Six years later, we still talk about how to get more women into senior roles and how to keep them there. Remember “binders full of women,” the ill-constructed term uttered by then U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney? Well, women still only make up 5.8 per cent of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies.

Despite the overwhelming efforts to push women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, their opportunities are often tainted in professional and personal ways. Just this week, Facebooks’ female engineers claimed their code was rejected more often than code written by their male colleagues, which comes as no surprise.

This is all in steady contrast to a few years ago, where stories of The End of Men, proliferated. Tales of female breadwinners contrasted with anecdotes of stagnant or negative employment opportunities in traditionally male-dominated industries, leading to higher rates of mental-health issues and suicides. While that rhetoric has tapered off, it did move the conversation regarding women in the work force from an oppressed minority (well actually, a majority) to one where they remain expected to take their prospects into their own hands. Movements such as Lean In, spawned by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book, and female-centric work environments evolved from this.

It’s not only our views on gender that have come a long way in six years, but the office itself. Open offices offered the promise of greater mingling and collaboration among employees and, ideally, to break down hierarchies. While we’ve evolved from the bygone era of cubicles and closed doors, the success rate of this open-office concept remains uncertain.

Even the office chair no longer can be taken for granted, as employees and employers alike assess the impact of prolonged sitting on one’s health. Coinciding with the evolving physical workspace came the trend of on-demand labour, where the historic social contract between employee and employer dissolved into an era of everyone for himself or herself. This works well for some interim leaders looking for a temporary adventure, while others in the never-ending freelance world risk being overworked and underpaid, with little in terms of security.

Then, the robot apocalypse arrived. Those in the knowledge worker economy took solace that the robots first targeted blue-collar workers, with driverless cars one day to replace taxi drivers and truckers. We quickly learned that none of us remain immune, even journalists.

So what does the future of the work force look like?

For one, I could certainly be happy if I never again hear the term “cultural fit,” as if it were a panacea to all of a company’s problems. But I won’t hold my breath.

My best guess is that, as traditional jobs become replaced with contract work and fewer people work in actual offices, we can expect that titles will no longer have the same significance they once did.

With a dearth of jobs, we will need to learn to redefine ourselves in a world where our value no longer hangs exclusively on that title or even our salary.

In other words, we’ll need to determine who we really are.

My greatest hope is that we finally learn the value of happiness. No, that doesn’t mean that your employer remains ultimately responsible for your health and well-being – although I do see a trend in that direction. Rather, individual workers need to carve out what living and working really means in this new economy. Many of us would gladly swap a few thousand dollars in favour of more personal satisfaction. I hope that the personal well-being trend continues so that the 80-hour work week finally becomes a relic of the past, that working people, even those freelancing, remember to take their vacations, and learn to manage their mobile devices in healthier ways.

While I’ve always relied on data and research to formulate my columns, on a personal note I would advise anyone embarking on a career change, or struggling in their current situation, to be true to themselves and understand when it’s time to go. On that note, this will be my final column. When I started, I worked in a corporate setting, then left to launch my own startup, and most recently, joined a family company. When you add my two children to the mix, I feel well-positioned to unleash a tirade on Ms. Trump’s remarks, given her position and privilege, but this time I’ll just end with a remark I’d offer to any of my close friends: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

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Follow on Twitter: @LeahEichler

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