Human Resources

October 2, 2007

Below is Timothy Taylor's take on employment. [list:112|Click here] to see what the rest of Vancouver is up to.

I have only ever held one job, in the formal sense of having an employer and showing up at a single workplace for 40 hours a week. That was the job I took out of business school as a commercial banker. I lasted four years to the day before leaving to become a writer. Resigning was a seismic event in my life. But in retrospect, my decision seems to have been in keeping with a broader shift in the way people think about work. For more and more of us, a job doesn't satisfy if it's merely a time clock: a place you punch in, perform a task, punch out, get paid. We expect more. And our jobs have become complexly bound up in the way we think about ourselves.

Consider the sort of work people increasingly do in this city. The resource industries remain critical, but they employ fewer people each year. In a report published early this year, "The Power of the Arts in Vancouver: Creating A Great City," senior Vancity research fellow Bob Williams and University of Florence economist Pier Luigi Sacco make a case that the culture industries (filmmaking, software, publishing, etc.) hold the key to Vancouver's future. As these sectors combine with the booming education, tourism, and hospitality industries, we're witnessing what amounts to a revolution in the meaning of work in Vancouver.

This is the knowledge economy blossoming, of course, but it also represents a shift in the way jobs are defined. Once commodities in themselves-a set of hands to pull in a seine net or operate a drill-jobs now demand a more individual contribution on the part of the employee. Knowledge is like that, infinitely various depending on who's providing it. So too are new-economy jobs shaped by the individuals holding them, architects and baristas alike: by specific expertise, personality, experience, style.

As we close the distance between technical job description and individual identity, we see cultural implications. We now more easily assume insight into a person by knowing what they do for a living. Someone says: Lawyer. Or they say: High school teacher. Or: Homelessness advocate. And we think: Right, okay. Like a lens has snapped into place and brought them into crisper focus. We imagine what kind of individual he or she must be, attribute personal qualities, passions, and values. And we assume insight into how they see themselves, their aspirations and hopes.

I learned this first hand when I left banking those many years ago. Reactions varied from courteous to dubious, envious to scornful. But the one that stood out came from the regional head of Human Resources. This man was simply incredulous, unable to process my decision. At the end of the exit interview he finally blurted out a question that had clearly been weighing on him from the moment he heard of my surprise early retirement.

"Is your wife planning to do the same thing?" he asked, eyeing me with real concern.

I resented the question-it was as if we were off to join a cult. But I've softened on the point. As an HR pro, he assumed knowledge of my psychology: my strengths and weaknesses, motives and preferences. I'd just walked into his office and told him he'd been wrong.

But I don't think even that bothered him the most. What unsettled the man was his innate understanding of the link between work and identity. He might not have put it this way, but in bailing out of the position he'd given me, I'd revealed a vision of myself, my life, my future, entirely different than the one he thought I held. I hadn't merely quit my job, I'd shape-shifted on him. I'd quit being the person he assumed I was. – Timothy Taylor

 

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