What Are The Implications Of The Imagined Order At Work?

imagined order harari

"Humans believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society." This quote is from Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in which he defines the "imagined order." The imagined order exists in our personal lives, characterized by the choices we make, the beliefs we hold, and the behaviors we exhibit. The imagined order also emerges at work when we accept corporate practices without questioning if they still make sense in the present context.

Most of the corporate operating procedures have dominated our organizational practices since the Industrial Revolution. We have come to accept the following order as objectively true:

  • full-time education between the ages of 18 and 22
  • full-time employment between 22 and 65, and
  • retirement at around the age of 65

Corporations make most operating decisions based on those premises in how they hire, train, promote, and transition employees out of the organizations. Scholars at London Business School call this the Three-Stage Model: Education – Work – Retirement.

The three-stage model was designed over 100 years ago. Throughout this time, the focus of the traditional work-oriented society has been on financial matters, such as compensation, retirement savings, and homeownership. As people are living and working longer, different types of needs are arising and taking on importance. With life expectancy continuously growing, people who are currently in their mid-40s will most likely need to work into their early to mid-70s. Those now in their 20s may need to work into their late 70s or even their 80s.

The shift in life expectancy increases the number of stages in an individual's life. People will no longer go from full-time education to full-time employment to retirement. They will now have a multistage life in which they will have additional stages between education and retirement. For example, they might experiment with new work options, become self-employed, start a business, or engage in activities that may be a combination of both paid and unpaid work.

(Source: MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2017)

In the multistage life model, in addition to financial assets, employees need other types of assets. Researchers at London Business School group them into three categories: productive assets, vitality assets, and transformational assets. Productive assets include the individual's skills, knowledge, and professional reputation and networks. These assets allow individuals to find interesting work during an employment span of several decades.

Vitality assets comprise strong physical and mental health, work-life balance, and regenerative relationships. Having vitality assets enables people to continue working past the traditional retirement age. Transformational assets are becoming increasingly important, and they include self-knowledge and diverse networks of people who support employees' personal change and transitions.

The multistage life model requires organizations to change corporate practices. Instead of expecting conformity, organizations should embrace personalization. Instead of forcing standardization, organizations should allow for more flexibility. Instead of designing the employment policies according to employees' age (ex. mandatory retirement), organizations should make the policies age-agnostic. Some of the examples of how organizations can incorporate employees' needs for productive, vitality, and transformational assets are:

  • Cultivate lifelong learning with more decentralized and flexible approaches to education curated by individuals instead of the employer
  • Encourage employees to reexamine their goals and skills on a regular basis
  • Help team members to develop dynamic and diverse networks
  • Reshape employees' roles by adding new tasks and skills to prevent boredom and attrition
  • Offer sabbaticals and longer breaks to help people recharge
  • Encourage employees to build their own career timeline to meet the demands of dual-career families where individuals can change pace (accelerate or decelerate), workload (full or reduced working hours), work location (office or home), and role (project or support)
  • Offer flexible work hours
  • Diversify sources of recruiting being mindful of nonlinear career paths
  • Rethink age stereotypes viewing older workers as an asset rather than a liability
  • Redesign retirement by offering flexible retirement dates or flexible working arrangements after a full-time retirement.

We need to reimagine the "imagined order" and question many of its “truisms.” They have not reflected reality and served our employees well for an exceedingly long time.

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