Graduates tend not to expect autonomy in a first job. Considered to be the preserve of the self-employed, the freelancer, or the hallowed ‘entrepreneur’, autonomy is at odds to the ‘grunt work’ that makes up most young professional’s nine-to-five. So why do we regard autonomy as such a valuable commodity? Can we have it? And, ultimately, do we want it?
The emphasis on autonomy is there from an early age. The perennial carrot dangled in front of students is the idea that if you make it through all the lessons, the tests, the run-ins with Bunsen burners, you will emerge as the master of your own destiny.
And yet we wide eyed grads and school leavers find the reality to be quite different. More often than not a first job is stifling, boring, shit. We find that being master of your own destiny is a frivolous concept, unless your own destiny happens to the photocopier.
In education we are taught to value creativity, autonomy and independence. In the workplace we find that conformity, obedience and stricture are the new commandments. For the employee the experience can be disheartening at best, and, in trying to manufacture ‘company men and woman’, the employer can risk losing the impetus and drive their young recruits may come with.
Autonomy can alleviate that burden. It infers a relationship of trust, it demonstrates respect, endows ownership and transcends typical workplace dynamics. Employees become stakeholders, with the ability to work to their strengths. Employers reap the rewards of a contented workforce able to express themselves.
However, it is worth bearing in mind the truism that you can have too much of a good thing. Autonomy is desirable to a point, but total freedom can be disabling. Autonomy implies responsibility, and as such too much of it can be incredibly pressurising and counter-productive. This is not, then, a call to arms against all workplace conventions. Good management, hierarchy and structure are not totally defunct, but they may work more effectively when accompanied by greater autonomy.
Irrespective of the pros and cons, employers may soon be forced to inject greater autonomy into their organisations. The conventional paradigm of large, and particularly bureaucratic, organisations employing individuals to fill specific and rigid roles is under threat from the restlessness of Millenials and ‘generation y’. According to the Future Workplace, 91% of Millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years. If those expectations were realised that generation would occupy a staggering 15-20 roles through their working lives.
If employers desire employee retention they would do well to react by allowing more internal movement. Those same employees would in turn benefit from the ability to carve out their own paths, to bring their own values and skills to the organisation, and to place fingertips on that most fabled of all things: job satisfaction.