In college, we hear quite a bit about professionalism. When we enter the “real world,” we will need to wear specific clothes, act a specific way and speak a specific way.
However, we need to recognize that professional culture is no longer what it was a couple decades ago and, at institutions of learning, we should start to push newer professional standards rather than traditional ones.
Historically, the way one conducted oneself at work was much different from other settings. For example, more formal dress codes were commonplace and one’s work, personal and social lives were compartmentalized, rarely crossing into one another — and when they did, the crossover did not look quite the same. Hierarchies were stringent and speaking to a coworker or a boss was much different from speaking with a friend.
However, as usual, things change from generation to generation. Take tattoos, for example. Over the years, they have become generally more widespread and thus more acceptable in professionalism culture as perceptions change. In fact, this change was already occurring in 2010, when 38% of millennials claimed to have a tattoo, while only 15% of those surveyed from the Baby Boomer generation had a tattoo, according to a Pew Research Center report. Now, tattoos — including visible tattoos — as well as different piercings, though once deemed unprofessional, are becoming increasingly acceptable in professional culture.
As our generation enters the workforce, there is now a disconnect between these generational perceptions. However, as we take over, there will likely be more of a shift in professional culture. This is especially true in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the work-from-home style became common and thus forced work into a more casual setting. In fact, in 2021, Jon Friedman, a corporate vice president of design and research at Microsoft, wrote an article for Fast Company in which he outlined the changes he was already seeing, including becoming more familiar with his colleagues as people and using emojis and GIFs in chats with coworkers. The pandemic has forced many workplaces into homes, creating more of a connection between work and personal lives.
Professionalism has long had an air of formality to it, with a list of rules — spoken and unspoken — of what to do and not to do. However, as we move into more “professional” environments, many of these traditional expectations often seem cold, and sometimes even stifling. How can we feel comfortable around our coworkers or our bosses if we know nothing about them and who they are? There is value to knowing the names of their pets and hearing a funny story from their weekend because it makes them human. Realizing the genuine humanness of an individual at work — whether above or below you — helps create a more relaxed environment that allows for the sharing of innovative ideas and leaves room for personal connection and expression.
In American culture, work is an especially significant aspect of life. In fact, most people will spend 90,000 hours at work during their lives, according to an article from Gettysburg College. Spending 90,000 hours with people you do not truly know or with whom you do not feel comfortable does not sound appealing.
Although basic aspects of the professionalism framework, such as basic courtesy, respect and politeness, will presumably remain, it should and likely will look different.
While traditional professionalism seeks to mold individuals into the ideal worker, we now seek to make the ideal worker unique through our own traits and self-expression. As the world changes, we as a school need to recognize this and prep our students to change with it and become part of this new wave of reinvented professionalism culture rather than pushing traditions that simply will not survive the generational transition.