Meaningful work: why we want more of it

by 10 Jun 2008

WHILE PHILOSOPHERS have long wondered at the value of work beyond providing a living, the notion of “meaningful work” is a relatively new phenomenon that would have made little sense to our forebears of a couple of centuries ago.

However, more people are seeking meaningful work in the modern age and employers need to understand how they can add more meaning to people’s work.

A recent paper from The Work Foundation in the UK suggests that the way people talk about fulfilling their potential in a job could happen only in the modern world of work – it is simply not something that would have been said a few generations ago.

Meaningful work rests on the rise of individualism and identity as pressing concerns for large numbers of people. It speaks of huge and perhaps excessive expectations of working life – the historically unusual sense that fulfilment occurs, or should occur, in the ordinary business of going to work.

“People are very different – what is meaningful to one person may not be meaningful to another, and what someone finds meaningful at the age of 23 may not be how they feel at 43,” said Stephen Overell of The Work Foundation.

“Nevertheless,” Overell said, “meaning is unmistakably in the air of the 21st century culture of work.

“The raising and dashing of hopes around meaning has become one of the major psychological forces within working life. What goes on inside workers’hearts and minds about work has become profoundly important to what they produce and how they do it,” he said.

The paper argues that the discovery of meaning in work relies on balancing three sets of motives. They are moral motives – the idea that the “ends” of work are worthwhile; compensation motives – including money, but also status, authority, responsibility and the appropriate use of skills and abilities; and craft motives – the desire to do a good job for its own sake.

Meanwhile, the work that people do today has changed in such ways as to prompt more questions about meaning, fulfilment and rewarding work – relatively well-paying, highly skilled professional and managerial jobs now account for more than a third of all jobs in many advanced democracies.

Work is more concerned with intellectual problem-solving and how people communicate and relate to each other than it used to be. This does not make work more meaningful, but it helps create the conditions in which issues of meaning and identity arise.

“What we are talking about in the phrase ‘meaningful work’ is a culture that normalises a search for meaning as much as the aspirations and disappointments of individual working people,” the paper said.

“The issue of meaning arises because of the modern stress upon identity, authenticity and individuality: only by addressing ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who might be my people?’ can one begin to grasp meaning as it is concerned with how individuals locate themselves in the world and seek to order and accord significance to their lives.

“The search for meaningful work draws deeply on the powerful modern ideal of doing one’s own thing, finding one’s own path to fulfilment, and life ‘being what we make it’.”

The paper argues that employers have a role in enabling the search for meaningful work by providing high-quality jobs for people – jobs with autonomy, security, variety, a reasonable balance between effort and reward, and between skill level and demand.

But employers cannot create meaning and should not try to. It is up to individuals to find work that is meaningful for them. However, employers are capable of destroying meaning through exploitation, disrespect, and poor organisation of work.

Social values that affect work have changed: a basic psychological orientation towards maximising income and status is today being balanced by emphasis on self-expression, diversity of view, aesthetic concerns and issues of self-fulfilment.

Meanwhile, identity and individualism at work have risen at the same time as traditional collective institutions such as trade unions, communities and corporate hierarchies are seen has having declined.

Doing excellent work for no other reason than its own sake is intrinsic to the notion of meaningful work. However, increasing bureaucracy and market forces may undermine the search for meaning.

Having a sense of vocation is very similar to the idea of doing meaningful work. The difference is that meaning is more self-conscious than vocation: the service of others as a personal experience rather than a calling.

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