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Perhaps the most annoying question a young professional can be asked during the tiresome ritual of the performance review is “Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?”
The right answer is: “I don’t know”.
But, of course, when I’m asked, I’ll equivocate; reel off an empty sentence about “how passionate I am about the company” and how ambitious I am.
Between financial cataclysms, impending environmental collapse, rampaging inequality, automation and rising cost of living - this generation is unhinged from the era of the company man. This is a global system seemingly predicated on sabotaging young people. At this rate, I’d be happy to get an annual pay rise to stay level with inflation.
All this begs the question: What can HR do?
I’m sure HR means well, they’re usually very kind - but the insistence on utilising a formula from a long forgotten time where a 25 year old could buy a house rubs me the wrong way.
How’s about, instead of vacuous questions and empty perks, you do things that will materially affect me? How about implementing a policy that allows each worker one unpaid sabbatical after three years? How about a four day work week? We don’t live in the 1970s anymore, so why the hell are we working like it?
A lot is made of the “start-up generation”. But has anyone wondered why it is so? Young people, alienated from the modern workplace, have been forced to make work in their image. We can’t afford luxury items anymore, so all we have left is meaningful experience - and work is a central component of that.
And besides, my parents’ conception of trading drudge work 9-to-5 to afford a decent life is not just unattainable to me (thanks to stagnant wages), it’s entirely unpalatable. I want my work to be meaningful. And no, that doesn’t saving the world; that means experientially meaningful, filled with moments.
I can almost hear the collective sighs followed by “kids these days!”.
But what is wrong with demanding and expecting fulfilment? This idea that I must be “grateful” for my work, and I must “earn” living belongs to the Industrial Revolution.
So what of HR, then?
Well, if you want a happy workforce - truly happy, not just placated - then it’s time for brave leadership from HR. All too often HR’s role is to be management’s kind face and to keep workers anaesthetised and functional but subdued.
You can and should do better. And perhaps the question HR managers should be asking themselves is, “What do I see myself doing in 5 years’ time?” Will you be a corporate mandarin; procaine for the employees’ troubled soul? Or are you going to be brave and manage people as opposed to just managing employees?