To explore our perceptions and expectations of work:
We start at school. While not everyone goes to college, I wanted to see how prepared people felt when they entered the workforce. I wanted to explore what people thought about work before they entered the workforce, and what they think about work now. What beliefs did we have about work prior to starting work, and how did your experiences at school impact that? I wanted to explore this whole dimension of growing up.
Most respondents said that they didn’t feel well prepared to enter the workforce from school, at all. They didn’t feel prepared in almost every regard, from job skills,
to how to even apply to jobs:
“The job search wasn’t part of our curriculum, or part of any of our classes. I feel like maybe if I was in the business school, or taking business 101 or something like that, I would have had a better handle on what to do in regards to job search. Like I didn’t even know how to write a cover letter, which is kind of insane to reflect back on as a second semester senior.”
But most respondents agree that college prepared them to learn. As one respondent put it:
“99% of a job is just problem solving skills, like figuring out things. If you can’t do something, how can you problem solve, how can you learn it quickly, or find who to go to for help. Technical knowledge is obviously a big thing, but most work is just problem solving skills. I think the one thing I use from college in my career is just how to learn. So that was really surprising to me. I just thought I’d be using stuff from my textbook. Yeah. I definitely wasn’t..”
It was a shock, going from college or university life, to working a job. One respondent said that he’s
“…come to realize that university life is a lot different from the real world. There aren’t as many resources, and things aren’t handled with as much care as things are sometimes done at the university.”
This leads to one of the biggest themes that emerged throughout the interviews: the reality that people’s ideas about work completely changed as they progressed through the workforce.
It overwhelmingly followed this pattern:
Graduating seniors and prospective workers are willing to work hard for upwards mobility, think work will be fulfilling, and are as a whole, a lot more optimistic about work.
But as workers grow up and progress through the job cycle, we overwhelmingly find them seeking happiness, fulfillment outside of work, and a distinction between work and life.
For entry level positions in particular, many job seekers are willing to take jobs that are way less than ideal (in terms of compensation, work life balance, or type of work) in exchange for upwards mobility. They emphasize that that’s okay, and your first job probably is going to be less than ideal. However, you should grow and learn more and more things with every job, and continue refining your understanding of what you want and what you don’t want.
“It’s hard when it’s your first job. You get really nervous about it being your first job, and you’re like, I don’t really know what to ask for, I don’t know what to look for. Because you’ve never really worked outside of a normal college or high school job. And so like your first job, you’re just like, okay, I just want to get something, I need to get something on my resume, I just need to do it. And that sometimes makes you look past things in your first interview that in an interview for your second job, would be red flags. So I like to think that each career move you make, it just gets progressively a little bit better. Because you just know what to look for, what you like and what you don’t like about your last job, so you can look for those when you’re interviewing and ask those questions. Because you’re taking what you’ve learned from previous jobs, and applying that to new places.”
Interviewees also emphasized that as they grew older, they realized more and more what role they wanted work to play in their lives. Growing up was more than just growing older—it also represented a chance to think more carefully about what they wanted in their lives and what place work should have in their day-to-day experience.
“I think that when I first graduated, I was really focused on my work and career. It just happens when you go to college, and you’re in a community that’s just so work and career oriented, I guess you just go along with it without really assessing the purpose or why you’re doing it. So at the beginning of my career, I was like, I’m doing this because everybody else is out there getting a job, I need to get a job, I need to do it, because I thought I enjoyed it. I just felt so much societal pressure to get a job. I mean, obviously, you should just get a job. It’s good for you. But I guess now I have more of a clear understanding of why I do it, and what it means to me. And I think before I didn’t really care about making that much money. I didn’t really mind that I was making less than some of my peers. I was like, oh, well, this is gonna set me up for a really good job later on. I worked with cool clients, and felt like it was good enough for me. But now I’m more driven to, I don’t want to say make an impact because it sounds cheesy, but I do want to do greater and cooler things on a larger scale, because now I’m more tenured in my role, and I understand the professional landscape much, much better than I did a few years ago. I feel a lot better equipped to take a more leadership kind of position somewhere else.”
QUESTION: How did your views on work change throughout your career path?
So reasonably, there were a lot of things that surprised people once they started working. Aside from being generally unprepared, the transition from college and part time jobs to a full-time position was jarring.
“I was surprised about a lot of things when I entered the workforce. Like taxes I didn’t know existed, insurance stuff I didn’t know existed, or that you had to apply for stuff like tax returns.”
To office politics:
“When I entered the workforce I was just shocked that it’s not like college. At all. At work, you have to be very careful about what you say and how you frame things. You have to be pretty delicate with how you state your opinion, because it can cause conflicts. So you have to frame things very carefully, and you always have to consider the other person’s position. Consider their incentives and, and just be very understanding and mindful, but also assert yourself at the same time.”
“I was surprised that there’s just a lot of office politics. At every job that I’ve been in, it doesn’t really matter how well you perform sometimes. But like, if you know someone, then you’re more inclined to get promoted quicker or get a raise just because you know someone who knows someone or you’re buddy buddy with someone. I would say I have seen office politics in almost every job.”
And to the general lack of time.
“Now that this is the first time I’ve worked full time anywhere. And I just really underestimated, like I didn’t know how full time, it’s all your time, basically. I didn’t realize how much time really went into being a full time employee. And it’s terrible. I really feel like I don’t have time to do anything else except work. When I’m not working, I just want to take a nap or clean my apartment.”
In the next section, I explore more things workers didn’t know, and share what they wish they had known.