The generation of hypersocial individualists has a slogan: “you are what you do.” Young knowledge workers want to make their mark on the world and make a difference for others. Therefore, volunteer work, as a fringe benefit, is an attractive corporate strategy in the future.
By Cathrine Schmidt
The global cosmetics company, Body Shop, calls it active personnel policy when it pays for workers to use a certain number of days each year in volunteer work. Manpower's CEO, Jeff Joerres, describes Manpower's program of social responsibility as a barometer and a tool for strengthening the company's values and culture, and build trustworthiness in the company's markets. The extended partnership between companies and volunteer organizations is a strategy that give employees the chance to be personal, individual, and social, while fulfilling the need for immateriality and meaning in every day life.
Recruiting and keeping the knowledge workers of the future puts new demands on companies. The fact is, knowledge workers are hard to replace, and there is global competition to attract them. At the same time, companies can look forward to years of low birth rates but also to a new type of employee.
According to the Swedish futures researcher Mats Lindgren, the young are “individualistic post-materialistic careerists.” In light of the young's buying power and consumer consciousness, the term post-materialist might not seem apt, but that does not mean that the young puritanically reject the material, only that the material is not where the joy comes from in the life project.
For the next generation, which has grown up in a society rich in welfare and choices, work is also not a moral imperative. Few believe the good life includes a life without work. As born individualists, youth completely understands the dogma that it is up to them to achieve success, and they are very ambitious. But the success parameters don't come from outside, in the shape of surroundings norms, but from within, in the form of personal experience. Work should be fun, challenging, and create possibilities for personal development and meaning. And, above all, it must feel real.
The slogan for the Danish health campaigns is “you are what you eat.” That of consumer society seems to be “you are what you buy” although power of products to signal values is declining quickly, limiting that path to self-realization. The slogan of youth is more like “you are what you do.” For the next generation of hypersocial individualists, it is essential to leave your mark on the world and do something that means something for others.
When consumption and work are no longer goals in themselves, companies who wish to recruit must start being interested in what drives people to work for free. What lies behind volunteer work is not the moral “I should” or a political project in the public sector; on the contrary, it is an individualistic project where the pay off is an experience of real meaning, engagement, and recognition.
The increase in volunteer work is the result of there being a wealth of organizations, associations, and support groups that we can choose between according to personal interest and expected pay off. Surveys show that it is primarily individualization that drives charitable enterprise, and only secondarily reflections about society. 53% of those who perform volunteer work in Demark cite either their own interests or those of someone close. Only 3% work voluntarily and for free because of injustice; and only 15% because they feel it is necessary to do something.
Volunteer work is driven first and foremost by the wish of active and well-educated people to develop themselves together with others. Far more employed people, as a percentage, work voluntarily, compared to the unemployed.
Cooperation between a company and humanitarian organizations can be an important attraction for the worker of the future. In addition, the extended partnerships are a great benefit for society; moreover, the company can use them in its social branding. But that's not all: it can hold even more benefits for the company.
A company is not its physical buildings or current projects, but that room of possibilities that it puts at the disposal of its employees. Here, humanitarian organizations have something to offer. The volunteer organizations have managed to make charity work an individualistic act by making room to create something new. Flat structures, short time from start to feedback, no need to be profit-oriented, and a focus on not nursing old methods or organization of labor have opened up for creativity and innovation.
Many volunteer organizations have managed to link the trend of individual freedom with charity. They have created a frame for individual development, where one does not commit oneself for long periods, where one can realize new ideas and feel needed together with others.
One reason volunteer work can be the key to the work life of the future is because work in many companies has changed, even though the notions we use to describe our companies and work efforts have not changed. In the knowledge society, work is more than production, but includes immaterial and invisible elements such as network development, adopting new ideas, and recognizing new possibilities for cooperative constellations.
Even so, a company's criteria for judging work is often a carry-over from the industrial age: visibility, quantity, or the amount of time used on “real” work; that is, work carried out while one is sitting quietly alone. At the same time, to a great extent, work and the individual have been mixed together in modern work life. If you want to use an employee's full potential, it's not about getting them to dedicate themselves even more to the idea of “work time - all the time.” That creates stress and ineffectiveness, not good ideas and new angles. The development courses and tools used to help employees cope with stress are often based in precisely that which causes stress: a constant reflection over the duty to oneself let go of the work that gives recognition to make room for work that can inspire.
The company of the future can take co-responsibility for creating opportunities for the individual employee to have a structured freedom. Companies can use volunteer organizations as both sources of inspiration and as labs for employees to develop themselves outside the company's work routines and expectations of “real” work.
Cathrine Schmidt studies anthropology and is a writer for FO.