Working Out the Meaning of ‘Meaningful’ Work

Many educators and scholars, in essays like this one, have already denounced the “do what you love” mantra (or, as its known in its abbreviated form, DWYL). Miya Tokumitsu criticized it as an elitist battle cry and a classist whisper.

The objections raised in those essays may appeal to leftists who abhor the idea of a world in which we all walk around grinning and saying “I love my job.” They question the expectation that work should be a source of pleasure. But the idea that work is inherently displeasing — or provides the worker disutility (to borrow a phrase from classical political economist Jeremy Bentham and from microeconomics textbooks everywhere) — is equally troubling.

Adam Smith believed that work forces the worker to sacrifice “his tranquility, his freedom, and his happiness.” Karl Marx criticized Smith’s view and believed that labor in the form of creative problem solving could indeed provide “self-realization.” (To Marx, the problem lay not in labor itself, but in the system of wage labor that exploited workers and alienated them from the creation of the final product.) I digress into the history of economic thought, not purely to indulge my own interests, but to highlight that the progressive scorn nowadays of the do-what-you-love motto, is actually switching sides on a very old debate.

Arguing that work is inherently unpleasant reinforces one of the more insidious assumptions in mainstream economics and one of the more cynical claims in our culture: that people are merely consumers trying to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. That sort of thinking leads managers to assume that workers are bound to shirk responsibility whenever possible, and are only motivated by money. It breeds extremely dysfunctional work environments with high surveillance and competition among co-workers. The polymath Herbert Simon has written about how workers’ sense of identification with the mission of an organization explains why employees actually perform the duties necessary to promote the institution’s goals, and not just pursue their self-interest as economic theory would expect.

For many of us, our motivation behind work may not be “love” or “pleasure,” but a desire for a sense of meaning that we cannot shake during working hours. That is probably most obvious among the academic set; the reality is that no one pursues a Ph.D. as part of a get-rich-quick scheme. (The conversation about finding work that provides for something other than one’s material needs is steeped in privilege, but so is graduate-level education.)

To talk about “meaning” as a motivation for work may still err on the side of elitism, but is actually a more inclusive benchmark, because while it is hard to imagine that one loves to clean up the messes of other people, it is actually quite presumptuous and patronizing to assume that the worker sees no meaning in it. The concept of “meaningfulness” is less objective and more open to rationalizations than the idea of enjoyment, and makes us vulnerable to being taken advantage of by employers both inside and outside of academia.

So how does one reconcile an understanding of the political economy of work, with the knowledge that it is often a sense of meaning that motivates us?

Grappling with that question, I called a childhood friend who has written The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, a book aimed at inspiring the Millennial generation to overcome the ennui of their 20s and 30s, especially in relation to work. Adam Poswolsky, (whose high school nickname “Smiley” has stayed with him into adulthood and is printed on the book’s cover), is a true-blue believer in the creed of following one’s passions and interests into a meaningful career. His book takes an earnest approach to working through the challenges of early adulthood, and feels like a breath of fresh air in the smog of disgruntled dreamers.

More than anything, I appreciate his central message as it was around this same time in my own life when I decided to leave my first career in the nonprofit advocacy community to pursue my Ph.D. – a calculated risk I am extremely glad I took. That message: While Adam counsels young people to follow their passions, he also advocates “a healthy dose of reality” and concedes that few should expect to earn more money doing work they consider more meaningful.

Choosing a less lucrative but potentially more emotionally rewarding career is nothing new, especially for academics. Professors, particularly in the natural sciences and engineering, could usually have earned far more had they left academia and gone into industry. The Adjunct Project and other Chronicle blogs provide a fairly comprehensive record documenting the financial and nonfinancial implications of quitting teaching.

For those doctoral students planning on leaving academia in hopes of greener pastures, I will warn that nonprofits have a similar conflict between their missions and employment practices. The ethos of many nonprofit organizations was captured perfectly on the Netflix original series, House of Cards, when Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright) dismisses 50 percent of her staff and states coldly, “We are a charity but not for our employees.”

While I managed to earn decent salaries and benefits over the years that I worked for nonprofits, I had many colleagues who lived as precariously as the clients that their organizations aimed to serve. One pertinent example is of a friend who worked as a full-time organizer in the women’s health movement and had to take a second job as a barista so that she could afford necessary dental work.

While it may not be an entirely new development, it is certainly of interest that the corporate world seems to be increasingly embracing the idea of meaningful work. In a recent “story” in The Onion, “Startup Very Casual About Dress Code, Benefits,” the boss of a fictional company reports, “I’ve always tried to make this a cool, fun place to work, not some stuffy office that’s super uptight about whether you’re wearing a tie or having your 401(k) contributions matched.” But you don’t have to rely on a wisecracking writer about this, you can ask the real executives themselves. In an article in The New Yorker, “Companies With Benefits,” an interview with numerous executives at Warby Parker, “the eyeglass-maker of choice for hipsters,” leads the author to suggest that a socially conscious mission allows companies to attract talent that “will take less compensation in exchange for a greater sense of purpose.”

It’s no secret that these self-proclaimed do-gooder capitalists are trying to keep down the price of labor in an effort to meet the competing demands of their “ideals” and their bottom line. And while some of these corporations offer slick perks as a means of boosting productivity and ensuring worker loyalty (a la Henry Ford’s efficiency wage), many more are patting themselves on the back for the “innovative labor practices” of the so-called “1099 Economy” — tech-speak for relying on contractors rather than full-time employees.

You shouldn’t abandon your desire for work that feels meaningful, or believe that discussing the nonremunerative benefits of employment is somehow taboo. But as all kinds of workers come out of the post-recession economy even more vulnerable than before, you would be wise to keep in mind that your search for meaning can be used against you, even by the most idealistic of institutions.

As people, we’re more than the sum of our labor and our leisure, and dispelling the pervasive myths about our preferences for either is a necessary step to securing both.

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Categories: Alternative Models, Lady Business

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2 replies


  1. Emotional Intelligence Training, Meaningfulness, and the [Legal] Workplace | Psycholawlogy

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