All in a Life's Work
Work. Whether it’s blue, pink, or white collar, physical or analytical, in the home or in the office, for love or for money, we all do it. But the work world, like it or not, has dramatically changed since the days that our Golden Circle grads went pounding the pavement in search of their first post-college jobs.
For one thing, nobody’s pounding anything these days, unless you count typing a search query into a laptop or an iPhone. And recent alumni are under no illusion that they’ll spend their entire career working their way up the ladder at one firm. Rapidly changing technology, a slow climb out of a deep recession, evolved gender roles, and new-millennium attitudes have reshaped the ways we think about work and the ways we undertake it.
What are the implications for job-seekers, for workers, for employers, and for the institutions that prepare people for careers and for life? Read on for a look at work from the perspective of Keene State – its students, faculty and staff, and alumni, and its mission as a liberal arts college.
Work: what is it?
How do we define “work”? Pretty broadly, it turns out. Many of us, particularly college graduates, see our jobs as fluid components of our lives rather than as something separate from what we do at home and in the community. The word “work” refers to what we do “for a living” but also what we do to keep other aspects of living running smoothly – in other words, it encompasses housework, childrearing, avocations, community involvement, and more.
“I don’t tie work to compensation,” says Rich Grogan, regional manager for the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center, which is housed on the KSC campus. “I see it as a suite of tasks that we do over the days and over our lives that accumulates into something.”
Work, says Grogan, produces a favorable outcome. The upshot of housework is a tidy and welcoming home. The work that goes into relationships fosters functioning, engaged partnerships and friendships. The work that we do for money produces, well, money – a means of financial support for ourselves and our families. It may also produce a product of some kind, or a service, or a sense of having accomplished something meaningful.
For those lucky enough to have jobs that fulfill a personal ambition, are prestigious, high profile, or contribute greatly to society, paid work is increasingly tied to identity. “I think an extended definition of work is definitely called for today,” says Emily Porschitz, assistant professor of management at Keene State. “It’s not just what we’re getting paid for. We’re expected to embody our work and our careers in a way that we’ve never been asked to before.”
That’s partly because social systems have shifted, she says.
Porschitz, whose research interests include early careers, young professionals, and public/private partnerships, defines work this way: “Work consists of the activities we do in order to get paid, as well as what we do to contribute to the well-being of our society and our families. We live in a time of migration, when many people settle in places distant from where they were born. Our work, rather than our family history, is now the primary lens through which society judges us. This opens extraordinary doors for those of us who get to choose their work – but many are not so lucky.”
And then there are those whose passions are seldom lucrative but who choose to pursue them, either in their spare time or by scaling back on creature comforts. When artists talk about their work, they mean both the process of creating a painting or sculpture and the painting or sculpture itself. Whether they support themselves through an academic or other job, or even through selling their creations, may be irrelevant.
“Your job is something you do to get paid because you need the money to do something else,” says Maureen Ahern, director of Keene State’s Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery and a visual artist. “Your passion is something you do because it’s how you want to live.”
Mixing the two, Ahern notes, may be good for the artist but not so good for the art: artists dependent on the marketplace can be tempted to create work they know will sell rather than take risks.
Her definition of work? “It’s what I do with my life, what consumes my life, how I share things with others.”
Work: How do we find it?
Lee Germeroth’s last semester at Keene State has been a busy one, but he’s been spared the anxiety of searching for work. He has a full-time social media marketing job awaiting him after graduation. “It’s really great to be in that position right now,” says Germeroth ’14, who was offered the job at Paragon Digital Marketing in Keene six weeks after beginning an internship there in January.
When you first hear his story, it sounds almost as though the job found him rather than vice-versa. But a look at the backstory shows that he landed the internship that got him the job by using the tools of the contemporary job search – workplace experience, the Internet, and networking.
In the workplace experience category, Germeroth already has his own part-time business doing wedding, engagement, and portrait photography – and has promoted that work through social media. He sought out an internship for his final semester to add to that experience. Germeroth’s photography website falls into the Internet category, as does the fact that he learned about the internship at Paragon through an email compilation of opportunities available for Keene State students. In the networking category, the management major has worked hard in his classes, impressing his professors – three of whom supplied references for the internship, and one of whom has worked with Paragon’s owner through various local business organizations.
It’s the kind of approach advocated by job search professionals. “We’re always working with students on skill development,” says Pat Halloran, director of Academic and Career Advising at the College. “With everything you do, you’re building skills that will add to your marketability. It doesn’t stop in college.”
Halloran and the career advisors on her staff highlight the importance of networking for today’s job seekers. They recommend joining professional organizations for making in-person connections, and using social media – specifically those like LinkedIn that focus on professional opportunities – for online connections.
Anthony Munoz ’14, a student who found himself still looking for a job halfway through the spring semester of his senior year, has taken advantage of the offerings at the Academic and Career Advising Office. Before attending an on-campus job fair, he went to a workshop led by Keene State career advisor Beverly Behrmann, who introduced him to the job-searching resources available on the College website.
Munoz, with a major in communication and minors in writing and film, hopes to land an entry-level editorial job. His go-to website is Indeed.com, a search engine that aggregates job postings. By late March, he’d applied for about a dozen jobs located within an hour’s drive of his hometown of Plaistow, New Hampshire.
Like Germeroth, Munoz has been building his skills and his resume during his college career, with jobs at Keene State’s Writing Center and student newspaper The Equinox along with an internship in the Marketing and Communications Office.
“I’m very open to the fact that my career goals might change,” he says, “and probably will. I see my own skill set being with writing and editing and words. Communicating. There are a lot of things that I want to try.”
For now, though, he’s in waiting mode, and he’s very aware of the rising level of anxiety among his fellow seniors. His hopes for them: “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
Work: why does it matter?
On the surface it sounds like a dumb question. Work matters because we need money to pay the mortgage. We need something to do to fill our days. We need to feel that we’re doing something useful, or valiant, or important. Not to mention that stuff just plain needs to get done. The trash needs to be collected, the students taught, the patients cured, the next generation iPhone developed.
But even that list of tasks suggests the complexity of the question.
“The work – or multiple works – we each perform is meaningful for the collective well-being of the society in which we live,” notes sociologist Joanne Cepelak, the partner of KSC President Anne E. Huot and faculty emerita, State University of New York. “As the saying goes, ‘Somebody’s got to do it,’ and, depending on whether the work is desirable or undesirable, society will find a way to attract people to or distract people from the work.”
And while people in jobs that are low in prestige and low in personal investment may find satisfaction in providing for themselves and their families, they don’t acquire a sense of meaning from what they do, she notes. That sense can come from jobs that are skilled and require a high degree of personal investment. “There are certain fields where you say: This is what I love to do. I’m good at it, it makes me feel good about myself, and other people recognize that what I do is good,” says Cepelak.
Anthony Scioli, professor of psychology at Keene State, offers some insight into work from the perspective of hope – which is defined in a book he co-wrote, Hope in the Age of Anxiety, as “not merely a process by which you arrive at a destination” but “a way of being in the world.” We all want our basic needs met, we want connection with other people, and we want a sense of mastery – which many of us can gain through our work. Striving to fulfill these hopes can bring individuals a more meaningful way of being in the world.
Dividing workers into the two poles of those who work to live and those who live to work sets up a false dichotomy, Scioli notes.
“In reality,” he says, “most people lie somewhere along a continuum where, at one end, we find workers at a job that provides a ‘living wage’ and not much more, and at the other end career professionals who are living their ‘dream.’”
Even low-prestige work can meet hopes for mastery and spiritual fulfillment, though the hopes stem from the individual and not the nature of the work, or from the fact that a paying job frees one up to pursue larger goals. “The challenge is to link work with higher goals that may out of necessity be far removed from the actual job environment,” says Scioli, who quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.”
People with professional careers, those on the “live to work” end of the continuum, may find many of their hopes for mastery fulfilled via the challenges, rewards, and empowerment gained through their work life. They can find spiritual assurance if they feel their work or the work of their employer will be long lasting, or if they feel deeply connected to the values and mission of the organization that employs them.
Work matters in a variety of ways and on a variety of levels, both in terms of people finding meaning in their lives and in terms of the functioning of individuals, family units, communities, and societies. Most people who go to college do so, at least in part, because they want careers – and lives – that are engaging, challenging, and ultimately worthwhile.
Cepelak, whose career in education has included teaching and counseling at primary, secondary, and higher education levels, encourages students to follow their passion rather than aim just for the money. “Do you really want to get up every day,” she asks them, “and hate what you’re going to do?”
Work: how has it changed?
It’s not your grandfather’s work world. It’s not your father’s, either, and it certainly isn’t your mother’s. Gone are the days when workers joined a company when they graduated from college and left when it was time to collect a gold watch. Gone are the days when worker loyalty was rewarded with retirement pensions.
Professional middle-class families can no longer count on getting by on one salary. Women are no longer automatically shuffled into so-called “feminine” occupations, though the distinctions between men’s work and women’s work still linger. Men are now expected to take on at least some of the household chores, if rarely an equal 50 percent. Many professionals are expected to maintain an online connection to the office during their off hours and vacations.
What’s the upshot for workers?
“In some ways, tasks for living and planning have been pushed more and more onto individuals,” says the Small Business Development Center’s Rich Grogan, who has a PhD in organizational sustainability. “We used to have a robust pension system for people. Your retirement was all taken care of. In the same way, your work boundaries used to be taken care of for you. If you left the office at 5:30 at night, that was it. There was no way to communicate after hours. We have to self-describe these boundaries now, and that’s very difficult for people, because there are blurred expectations.”
Emily Porschitz of the Management Department concurs. “We have a lot more expectations on people in general but also young people to do it on their own, to figure it out for themselves, to self-manage. The culture, the discourse, is you’ve got to do this on your own. You have to take charge of it. And if people aren’t doing well, we tend to find fault with them as a person.” While companies and corporations once routinely provided career development and mentorships, workers now have to do that themselves, often through professional organizations and networks that they join outside of their work organization.
Meg Henning, assistant professor of Health Science, recently led a seminar on campus, along with two colleagues, on the topic of work-life balance. Things aren’t necessarily more unbalanced now than they were a decade or two ago, she says, but there’s been a shift, with work life spilling more into home life. It’s not all bad news, she notes: checking in with the office via email in the evening may be the trade-off for leaving early to catch your child’s basketball game.
What’s a good balance?
“That’s a personal question,” she says – and the answer can change throughout a person’s working life. A young, single person may not only be willing to work extra-long hours, he or she may seek out a collegial environment with co-workers who hang out together after work. Someone with a new family is likely to want more “home” time, whether that means some telecommuting or just fewer work hours in general.
What’s important, she notes, is self-management. Be in charge of the technology, and not vice-versa. “Increased demands in technology, increased demands in how quickly work needs to happen – that’s been a big shift,” she says. “It means becoming captain of your own ship. You can’t expect other people to steer you, so really learn how to effectively use the spaces in your life – the virtual spaces, the resources, your time.”
When you leave here, you’re going to be prepared for a myriad of professional careers that you haven’t even imagined yet.”
Keene State President Anne E. Huot, in a January address to faculty and staff, effectively summed up what a liberal arts education does for students: gets them ready not just for their first and second post-college jobs but for their second, third, and fourth careers.
Higher education has been under a microscope lately, with its value increasingly correlated to job-placement and salaries of recent graduates. Given the weak job market and soaring amounts of student debt, it’s no surprise that young people are being urged to prepare for careers that often offer higher starting salaries – the kind Keene State’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies qualifies students for in fields like nursing, education, and safety – rather than major in the social sciences or humanities.
But a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, based on United States Census data, indicates that salary discrepancies between these two groups even out over the course of a career.
The best news for Keene State students and alumni is that, while some jobs obviously require specific skillsets and training, almost all employers are looking for the kinds of skills acquired through the broad range of courses required of KSC students, whether they’re planning to be architects or social workers.
Call them soft skills or call them essential skills, as the staff at the College’s Academic and Career Advising Office does, the ability to think critically, to communicate well, and to assess a situation will stand individuals in good stead regardless of their particular career paths.
“Those are the skills that our students have the opportunity to build at Keene State,” says Pat Halloran of Academic and Career Advising. “Talk about transferrable!”
All those essential skills add up to something larger, notes the Small Business Development Center’s Rich Grogan. “I went to a liberal arts college, and the greatest thing I got from that experience was the knowledge and ability to educate myself going forward. I know how to dive into a topic, learn something on my own, summarize it, and connect it into whatever else I’m doing. And I’m able to see intersections between different topics and find innovation at those nexus points,” he says.
What Grogan hears from employers with job openings is “‘We will train you, but we need people who are competent, who know how to work, who are motivated and driven’ – all those kinds of things that you get from a liberal arts background, where you’re forced to work hard and you’re forced to think in different ways.”
That should bring hope for today’s young people, who face both the excitement and the uncertainty of a future that could hold any number of careers – including, as President Huot noted, ones they haven’t even imagined.
This article, written by KST editor Jane Eklund, appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Keene State Magazine.