Finding meaningful work in an ever changing world

Meet... William Stephens

Researcher William Stephens
William Stephens

Most young people in the Netherlands are doing fine in their transition from education to work. But there are some that feel very confused and have difficulty realizing their plans and possibilities. And even as adults we can find ourselves at a job which we have not chosen, but were more or less assigned to. What to do? William Stephens is a postdoctoral researcher at the faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Utrecht University, studying how people become adults in a changing world.

Why is it harder to find meaningful work now, than before?

Society has become more complex, so there is ever increasing choice, but these choices can be hard to make, especially at a young age. New kinds of work are emerging, and other forms of work are being replaced by changing technology. People can find themselves in a job without finding it is really drawing on their talent or potential. Who doesn’t meet people doing jobs we didn’t even know existed? It’s easier with vocational jobs. For plasterers / stucco workers it’s clear what the results of their work are and what skills are required to get the job done. For others, it can be challenging to recognise the contribution they are making. This can leave people confused or unmotivated at work.

How are you studying this?

Through previous research, I was already in touch with young people. Through my previous research, and due to spending time working alongside other families in my own neighbourhood, I have been talking to many young people over the years. Together we have reflected on the social context and the neighbourhood. In these conversations we have seen recurring underlying questions facing young people:How can I be part of society? What is my worth? How do I find my purpose in this world?

What role does “work” play in becoming an adult, according to you?

A flourishing adulthood requires a sense of purpose in life. Meaningful work is one way to give you that sense of purpose. Nobody wants to be just a cog in the machine. Most people want to make a positive impact in the world, or in other people's lives. Work can be a way for you to draw on your talents and skills to contribute to something beyond yourself, but this requires that you have some space to contribute.

What makes it hard to find out what jobs you would be good at?

It’s hard to pinpoint skills, especially if you’ve never been exposed to a different settings than you're used to. Of course there are tests and you have teachers pointing out your talents, but in the Netherlands we steer children towards a certain trajectory very early on. This has an impact on their possibilities later on. At ages ten to twelve you, you are still learning about your talents, abilities and possibilities. Yet, children are directed towards an education at university or a more practical education. There’s not always room to explore. And a talent, the thing you’re naturally good at, can only flourish if it’s nurtured. We should take time to nurture talent.

Talent, the thing you’re naturally good at, can only flourish if it’s nurtured. We should take time to nurture talent.

A teacher might say to a teenager: ‘You’re good with people, you could go into healthcare or teaching', forgetting that this teenager is also good at math. Maybe this youngster later on discovers: ‘Actually, I enjoy math so much, I wish I had picked a more technical education.’

We tend to forget that to find the right job, you need to look at the whole person, not just at their skills set. Interest, passion, motivation, joy, are just as important in finding the right job.

Why did you pick these topics as a researcher?

Before I entered academia, I used to work as a teacher, teaching 7-9 year olds. The wellbeing of young people has always interested me. I see trends and challenges in the neighbourhood and the world  around them. Supporting them inspires me, the conversations we have, the way they look at the world. We talk about what is helpful and what is challenging in gaining control of their lives.

Next to my university job, I have been following the work of organisations such as the Breakwell-Instituut where we are helping young people aged 12-25 to find purpose in their education and to develop and maintain motivation in seeking and pursuing vocational or academic training. My wife works there full time, so these topics are part of my life, our lives.

What project are you currently working on?

Within the Becoming Adults community at Utrecht University, we are interested in the ongoing challenges young people face, one of which is preparing for work. I’m currently developing my own project “Pathways to vocational work" in which I study how people enter the fields of care and trade. The overarching question is under what conditions do pathways to work in the trades and care accord with a flourishing transition to adulthood? This raises many other questions including: When and how do young people find a profound meaning in these jobs? What role does autonomy play in the choices they’re making? What role does salary play? And gender? Expectations of  the people around you?

How are you collaborating with other researchers?

I’m involved in the strategic research theme Dynamics of Youth at Utrecht University, where scientists from different fields help each other. More specifically I’m connected to the community Becoming Adults in a Changing World. Next to that I am open to collaborate with Future of Work researchers that would like to combine strengths and insights, you can always email me. I’m organizing a pop-up meeting on the transition from school to work on October 10, open to researchers and to societal partners. Have a look and join us, if you’re interested!

Pop-Up Meeting: Transitions to Work

How can we best support young people in this transition? What changes are needed in the systems around young people in this transition? How do young people find a sense of purpose and agency in navigating this transition? 

The Transitions to Work pop-up meeting is an opportunity to come together with other researchers and an international expert, Professor Kristoffer Chelsom Vogt (Bergen University), to explore potential for collaboration. There will also be time to explore the issues involved with societal partners and youth.