- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2009

As the summer wanes and Labor Day looms, we would do well to take stock of our working lives. After all, on average, the working American spends 93,000 hours at work over a lifetime. And with the national unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent, those who have work are wise not only to thank their lucky stars, but also to make the most of it. Those on the sidelines are smart to be proactive and creative in setting themselves up for gainful employment.

What’s mostly lost in the unemployment statistics is that many Americans are in the midst of a reframing process when it comes to their outlook on work. Americans take the least amount of vacation time in the industrialized world. On average, we receive 14 days of vacation per year. And we don’t even take the time we have. According to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans leave 439 million vacation days unused every year (an aggregate total of 1.2 million years), and more than a third of American workers take fewer than seven vacation days a year.

According to writer Steve Rushin, “In England [where workers get 24 vacation days], leisure and pleasure rhyme. In the United States, leisure rhymes with seizure.” He cites studies that correlate taking vacations with a reduced risk of death from heart disease for men and less depression for women. Although work hours declined steadily in the industrialized world between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, men today report working 100 more hours a year than in 1976, and for women it’s 200-plus more hours. Yet a recent Salary.com survey revealed that workers admit wasting about a fifth of their time on an average day gossiping or surfing the Web.

Of course, what matters most isn’t the quantity of work but the quality of work and our productivity. One recent trend is the “results-only work environment,” which gets people out of “workaholic” mode by letting them leave the office when their work is done.

That quality of work hinges on some interesting things these days. In the past, one could rightly expect compensation, prestige and promotion to lead job seekers’ priorities. Not so today. According to a 2007 survey by consultancy BlessingWhite, 4 in 10 respondents indicated work that challenges or stimulates them is the most important factor in choosing a job, and 2 in 10 indicated they are primarily looking for work that satisfies their personal values, while only 7 percent indicated that a move “up the ladder” was their top priority. Currently, the traditional notion of a “career path” is falling by the wayside for vast swaths of the citizenry.

Today’s shrewd organizations look to brand the employment experience they offer with meaning-filled pizzazz. For example, at CLIF Bar, employees are paid to work out during the workweek and are supported by full-time trainers on staff, not to mention sabbaticals and incentives for going “green” at home and in their commute. At Ernst & Young, employees are paid to volunteer - and get to use their specialized talents and skills in the process.

A Cone Inc. survey found that 79 percent of “Millennials” want to work for a company that cares about how it affects or contributes to society, and 64 percent reported that their employer’s social and environmental activities inspire loyalty.

Yes, something definitely is afoot in the workplace. One of the lead findings of a major study of enduringly successful people, written up in the book “Success Built to Last,” authored by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson, was that passion is a competitive advantage. According to the authors: “If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’ll lose to someone who does! For every person who is half-hearted about their work or relationships, there is someone else who loves [it]. This person will work harder and longer. They will outrun you.” Another finding was the importance of building meaning into what you do - of creating a life that matters.

Today’s rising generations - whose collective conscience has been seared by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the global financial meltdown - are reframing work. Gloomy unemployment statistics notwithstanding, they’re not just happy to have jobs. They want to make the most of them. It’s a “megatrend” that not only will outlast our current economic circumstance, but also will shape our workplaces for decades going forward.

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives” and founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development firm. They can be reached at authors@ lifeentrepreneurs.com.

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