If you've seen the classic cult movie Office Space, you're familiar with the humorous portrayal of the ultimate in workplace nightmares. A group of unhappy 20-somethings are made miserable by the constant nitpicking of annoying bosses, noisy coworkers, and jammed fax machines. Yet what probably serves as their greatest frustration is the feeling that they are embarking on a lifetime of dead-end employment. While on coffee break (after a bad "case of the Monday's") they poignantly ask themselves the question "What if we're still doing this at 50?" The thought fills them with horror.
How can you avoid being in a job at 50 that you hated for 5, 10, 20, or 30 years? If you're 50 (or older), and hate your job, what can you do about it? In these days of almost 10% unemployment, even higher for some sectors of the labor force, shouldn't you just be happy to have any job at all? What if you're not employed now- do you dread having to compromise your values so that you can qualify for a paycheck? I'll answer these questions after providing you with some background.
Extensive research carried out for many years by vocational psychologists points to the importance of a match or a fit between the personalities of workers and the characteristics of the job. The most highly respective and prolific of these researchers was John Holland, whose theory proposed that we are most satisfied in jobs that are "congruent" with our personalities. His theory identified six job types: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional (RIASEC). They are much as the names imply. Realistic people prefer jobs in which they work with their hands. Investigative people like to dabble in science and theory, and so on. According to Holland, we spend our worklives seeking the ideal match or fit between our personalities and our environments. If there is a mismatch, or a lack of congruence, between the two, we will keep trying and trying to make everything fall into place. Congruence is a key component, according to the theory, of both mental and physical health.
Holland’s theory is now the most encompassing of all approaches to understanding job success. It is used in O*NET, a large searchable database of occupations. You can use this to identify your personality and the "personality" of your current and ideal jobs.
Holland envisioned the six dimensions on a hexagon (see the figure here); you're most unhappy if you're in a job that is opposite your personality type. An "I" type in an "R" job will be pretty unhappy until he or she finds an "I" job. We all know stories of the striving artist forced into the 9 to 5 schedule of an office clerk or the socially demanding position of a salesperson. Of course, not everyone is free to drift toward the ideal point on the hexagon, but in the best of all possible worlds, we will find that match.
The RIASEC model is especially useful for diagnosing yourself and your work environment in a systematic fashion that will give you guidance on where to look for ways to boost your job satisfaction. You don't have to throw your hands up in the air and say "I'm miserable. Help!" You can chart specific steps to change that will lead you to congruence.
What if you're miserable but feel stuck in this bad economy? Here's the beauty of the system. Though it would be best if you could find the ideal job-personality match, if you can express your personality in ways outside the job, at least till the market improves, you can experience that same surge of fulfillment. For the artistic or realistic type stuck in a conventional job, hobbies that let you express your desire to create or use your hands can help fill the void. For the socially oriented working in jobs that offer little interaction, volunteering for a community organization can help you fulfill your desire to relate on a personal level with others.
You don't even have to limit yourself to experiences outside of your 9 to 5 realm to achieve this person-job match. If you are a social type, you can get great fulfillment through mentoring younger workers. As I discussed in a previous posting, mentoring provides everyone with an important source of gratification, and is especially fulfilling to socially oriented people. Or if you're in a social job such as sales and would like to get your hands dirty on the job with activities involving things instead of people, you can take on tasks that no one else wants such as working on improving company recycling efforts. In other words, you don't have to limit yourself to defining your vocational involvements to the narrow tasks of your actual job.
If you are struggling now to find a job, any job, even one on the opposite pole of your vocational type, the situation obviously presents a different challenge. However, as I found in my study of midlife baby boomers, published in The Search for Fulfillment, challenges such as layoffs and demotions themselves can present the opportunity for significant personal growth. Many of the most successful people in their 50s had experienced very bad times during their 30s, 40s, or both due to job loss and economic downturns. Though they would not have chosen, I'm sure, to have to go through those bad times, they used them to forge new job paths for themselves and achieve self-fulfillment. Their pathway, the Authentic Road, took some pretty radical twists and turns before heading in a fulfilling direction (you can take the Pathways Test here).
Vocational researchers speak now of the "protean" career in which workers shape their own occupational paths. Their inner values allow them to achieve self-fulfillment by directing their own job choices so that their jobs become true expressions of their inner selves. s There is also the "boundaryless career," the mindset that you don't have to stay within one organization throughout your work life but are willing to move when necessary to a more fulfilling position in another company (you can read more about career mindsets here). Knowing your vocational type is the first step toward that self-direction.
To summarize, here are my three recommendations:
1. Determine your vocational type. You can take a brief the RIASEC Survey that I created to give you quick feedback. Explore the O*NET site for more information on jobs. Or try the Self-Directed Search, another excellent vocational guidance tool.
2. If your job has become stale and unfulfilling but you are reluctant or unable to move, find opportunities in your leisure pursuits or the workplace to express your vocational type.
3. If you are seeking employment, look for jobs that are congruent with your vocational type. You will probably be more competitive for these jobs anyway because they are more compatible with your personality and interests.
With luck, your work weeks will involve fewer "cases of the Monday's" and more days in which you are able to express your own, unique vocational type.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010