Teaching Students How to Think About Sustainable Employment

In a couple of weeks I’m presenting at a sustainability and education conference at Leeds College of Art. My subject is a sustainable employment programme I ran with our third year students last year, based on finding your true purpose in life – not just rushing to get a job without really thinking about it.

A bigger idea of sustainability

Sustainability is something I try to encourage in my students through the way that I work – the behaviours I’m modelling – and when I talk about fashion marketing practices and ideas.

But I know that my journey in sustainable living really began when I started to think about how I, as a unique individual, was making an impact on the world around me and vice versa.

That included how and where I worked. Many marketing agencies can end up being run in an unsustainable way. Staff are stressed, burnt out, and working far too many hours for sometimes very little emotional reward. This is partly due to the nature of the business, but also because we’re wedded to the romantic idea of slaving away over a creative concept.

Yet even the most dedicated and passionate creative people still need time to rejuvenate themselves. They still need some sort of reward to make sure they feel energised and able to sustain their work – and more often than not this is not a financial incentive, but something more profound or meaningful.

A better template for new workers

If we want to change this template of creative work, it’s essential we put a new way of working and viewing employment into practice with students. They may never have had a full time job before, and may have challenging expectations of life after university. So modelling new sustainable behaviours now, during education, can help put them on a meaningful path for life.

To try and do this, I ran an employment programme with my final year students which is the subject of my research.

Employment programmes can often focus on what marketing folk would call the ‘tactics’ of employment; the day-to-day activities required to get a job, like having a great CV, or understanding how to conduct an excellent interview.

However, tactics aren’t that useful if you don’t have an objective. In marketing, there’s no point doing Facebook ads if you don’t have a reason for doing them. In employment-seeking, there’s no point having a great CV if you don’t know what your true purpose in life is.

My employment program was designed to help students work out what their objectives might be, not just for work but for long-term, lifelong plans.

Ikigai and employment

It was based on the concept of ikigai, a Japanese term translating as ‘the reason for which you get up in the morning’. There’s an excellent TED Talk which explains the concepts in more detail and which you can watch here.

Framing employment in a broader sense through ‘the reason for which you get up in the morning’, we were able to open up discussions about what having a good job really meant and what a good job even was. Too often we are focused on a job as a way of accruing economic capital. However, there is the opportunity to see your job as a way of releasing and rejuvenating human capital; the intelligence, energy, skills and vibrancy locked into individual human beings through the process of education.

Through the program, students were given tools to introduce them to ikigai and exercises to help them start to plan future employment, in particular as part of a larger and comprehensively fulfilling life plan.

A positive result

The feedback from the program has been incredibly positive. As always there are lots of things to learn about and do differently so that, year-on-year, the program can improve. But the biggest thing I found was that students were genuinely engaged with the idea of pursuing a fulfilling, meaningful job in a sustainable way. Here are just a few comments I received from students who had completed the programme:

“[This] approach to careers was on a larger, more thought provoking scale. The programme’s focus on Ikigai made us look at our whole lives rather than just a job. As our career makes up most of our time, being presented with the idea that our job choice should be driven by what makes us happy makes obvious sense now. This approach however, seemed new to us all at the time.”

“[The programme] helped me realise I didn’t need to have an exact plan right now, and although I still had ultimate goals/ikigai there are so many different ways to achieve this and there is no right way, to take any opportunity I feel is right and see where it takes me.”

“[The programme] helped me to manage my expectations of life after uni and salaries.”

More details

I’m presenting this research at a sustainability conference at Leeds College of Art, taking place on the 15th of October. It costs just £30 for a ticket. I definitely recommend coming along, but if you’re unable to, then the proceedings of the conference will be published afterwards.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this taster of my research project has started you thinking about the way in which you work, how you talk about work with colleagues or students, and whether you could inject something more sustainable or meaningful into it.

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