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Finding purpose in the future of work

Supporting disadvantaged young people to find meaningful careers benefits both them and the rest of society.

The former Littlewoods Building in Liverpool, England. Credit: Joe Entwistle. All rights reserved.

We live in a world of work that is going to change dramatically over the next 15 years. During the first industrial revolution, work was shaped by the adoption of machinery, where production was more important than human life. Improved working conditions were hard fought for. The next revolution in work, which is happening now, will be more diverse, profuse and fragmented.

We might need to abandon the very notion of a career in an increasingly non-linear and precarious labour market – thinking instead in terms of how we can use transferrable skills to jump from job to job. So should we abandon the potential for work to provide us with purpose and meaning in life? Should we be aiming for a post-work future in which automation and a universal basic income mean we don’t have to find or keep a job at all?

If we could, most of us would probably choose to work less. In the UK nearly two-thirds of workers are keen to reduce their hours, and as a recent report from the Trades Union Congress confirms people would choose a four day working week as the ideal. We can certainly aim to work less, but at the same time we need to make sure that we also improve working life both now and in the future. Researcher Alex Wood says that decent employment can help our well-being; it can provide us with structure, social connection and collective purpose. But how?

The Merseyside Youth Association (MYA) provides one useful example. They work with young people across the Liverpool City Region to support the development of meaningful careers that provide a sense of purpose, while making sure that genuine opportunities are more evenly distributed throughout the population. Through the Talent Match programme, MYA works with some of the most marginalised young people across Merseyside who aren’t in any form of training, education or employment. Many face multiple barriers to finding decent work: the vast majority don’t have any decent qualifications from school; 50 per cent haven’t worked for at least two years; nearly one in five has been homeless; and many have physical or mental health problems.

Through the UK government’s ‘welfare to work’ approach, young people who experience disadvantage can find themselves pushed into ill-fitting jobs or facing a punitive sanctions regime. Even when they are in work, jobs are often as insecure as they are unrewarding. As Phil, who is 26 and from north Liverpool explained to me:

“It may sound rather dystopian, but basically what society would prefer is a bunch of people who just go into a job, do it, and shut up. In most jobs that are available you are just there to be used and abused. If you complain, they kick you out and get other desperate people in.”

MYA has much higher hopes. Joe, who’s a youth worker at the agency, explained how they support young people to think about their futures - and then put things in place to help them move closer to their ambitions, step by step. “Recognising that each young person is different,” he told me, “means that the young people will get a career that they really want, rather than setting them up to fail.”

Having a meaningful career is important to young people in the group. One of them, Stacey Prescott-Howard, shared how “young people get told all the time just to get off benefits and get any job that is coming. It makes you feel that you are not worth having a career.”

MYA enabled Stacey to overcome some of the barriers she faced by helping her to become a support worker for children and young people with disabilities. For nearly two years now, she’s been working with children and young people who have complex needs in a range of settings including mainstream youth centres, nurseries, schools and behavioural units - where children excluded from school are sent.

Stacey Prescott-Howard. Credit: Joe Entwistle. All rights reserved.

Stacey feels as though her “dreams came back. I have got a career now. Having a career has taught me that I am worthy of having a future, I am confident enough to having a future, I am strong enough to have a future.”

Enabling young people to develop their ambitions takes time, so MYA works with them over the medium term to build on their interests, capabilities and experiences. They explore what young people really want to do with their lives, and then put incremental steps in place to help them make progress.

Sometimes, these steps need to begin with the basic foundation of survival. MYA has set up a foodbank just for 16-25 year-olds after they were told that many young people were going hungry but remained reluctant to use foodbanks due to stigma, anxiety, or from a feeling of not wanting to take food from families with children. The foodbank is a safe space for young people that they can call their own.

Every week, they can come to get bags of food, but they can also speak with MYA volunteers and staff about additional support that might be needed - whether it’s counselling, mentoring or personal development.

Stacey Bridge, another member of the group, described her situation before she first came to use the foodbank:

“My dad was killed. Then I lost my flat. I had a choice of paying for my dad’s funeral or keeping up to date with the rent. I ended up homeless. I went to a hostel with half a loaf of bread and a bottle of juice. The hostel gave me a leaflet for the foodbank at MYA.”

After going to the foodbank, Stacey’s life has changed through her hard work and through a plan of support that she came up with in collaboration with MYA.

“They could see I was stressed. At the time, I didn’t know whether it was Christmas or Tuesday. I thought there was no coming back from what happened. But here I am, volunteering at the place that helped me and training to be a youth worker. I’ve found something I love doing. Knowing that I’ve done something to help people feels good.”

Stacey Bridge. Credit: Joe Entwistle. All rights reserved.By taking small steps, Stacey has developed a stronger sense of purpose and is a real asset to her community. That’s how MYA operates; they see the strengths in young people not just the weaknesses, and help them to overcome the things that are getting in their way.

Social anxiety creates barriers for many young people in ways, for example, that stop them from going to college or attending job interviews. Such anxieties are not things that can be wished away, but through personal support young people can develop their confidence. Sometimes this begins with feeling comfortable on the bus, or being around groups of people. Bobbie is in college to do her Maths and English qualifications, and hopes to work in childcare. She explained how MYA supported her to deal with her anxieties:

“When I have to go somewhere, I can text Joe from MYA and he will come with me. He came to college with me and sat with me when I did the exams. Instead of being scared, you feel more confident with someone there with you. They support you step by step.”

MYA shows how incremental changes to people’s lives can add up to something more transformative by providing personal support to secure the emotional and material foundations that young people need; recognizing and building on their existing strengths and experiences; and enabling young people to demand better futures.

But there is more. Through the Talent Match Programme, MYA are highlighting the need for new thinking about the ways in which we “skill-up” ourselves, and how we include young people who have experienced disadvantage. Their approach points to an alternative world of work and skills in which we think beyond the dominant frames of the market and move towards what sociologist Bev Skeggs identifies as values of social support, care and cooperation.

We should aim to develop relationships and institutions that can create a future that enables purposeful careers in which all young people can achieve what they want to achieve. By encouraging our democratic imaginations to become more hopeful and energetic we might yet be able to find purpose in the future world of work.

About the author

Dan Silver is a researcher and teacher at the University of Manchester.  You can find him on Twitter @DanSilver_07.

The Research described in this article was developed and funded by Voluntary Sector North West.


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