Baking lesson. Fuzzy Thompson / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
After being made redundant late last year, I took the opportunity to meet with a career advisor paid for by my former employer.
Through the various tests and assessments it emerged that I placed the highest value on finding meaning in my work. While I could adequately perform jobs that are not especially meaningful, I would never feel truly at home in my role unless I could find genuine meaning in it. At worst, I would find a meaningless occupation debilitating.
Unfortunately, meaning is not an established and transparent aspect of our employment economy. Different people find meaning in different things; and for many people ‘meaning’ alone doesn’t hold much cachet.
In employment generally, money can take the place of meaning, with the understanding that we can spend the money we earn in personally meaningful ways. The most important thing is that we can afford to “pay the bills”; beyond that, the disposal of our monetary wealth can be a true expression of individual autonomy.
How we choose to spend our money is increasingly at the core of our identity, either through a multitude of consumer choices that supposedly reflect who we really are, or through more fundamental decisions regarding the pursuit of wealth, or whatever we choose to put ahead of it. In theory we might all strive to be rich for the sake of being rich; but in practice many knowingly choose paths that are – like the purportedly ever-rising cost of raising a child – not concomitant with a purely financial imperative.
What you do – or what you are?
Work is an ennobling and enriching part of human life, but career isn’t necessarily, nor is having a job. Work in its purest form is ubiquitous and profound: the ancient origins of the word itself mean simply “to do”. Work is doing, a doing that gradually accrued the sense of exertion, effort, labour, but also with a trace of artistic, scholarly, or constructive context. The sense is retained in the modern idiom “What do you do?”
Yet, curiously, this question now receives answers at variance with the key verb: instead of telling people what we “do” we tend to tell them what or where we are: “I work in government”, “I’m a business development manager”, “I’m the part-owner of a café.” Sometimes this is because a single word like “doctor” or “accountant” is enough to convey to a lay audience some semblance of the work involved.
In other cases it’s because the actual work encompassed by a single job title is too eclectic and diverse to be neatly summarised. But in every case such responses are encouraged by the general consensus that work is about more than what we do, that it is part of who we are, helps form and shape our identity, and gives substance to the demands of our pride or ego. “Work” in the sense of “what do you do?” is understood in terms of career.
Historical, cultural, social, and economic factors all impinge on the elaborate calculations we perform each time we learn what a person “does”. Do you enjoy the prestige of being a member of a profession? Do you have the status of working for a well-known and esteemed company? Do you earn a lot of money? Is your work uniquely fulfilling, interesting, or exclusive? Does your position carry a great deal of power and respect, either in relative or absolute terms?
The nature of such questions means that real work – what a person actually does, and how well he or she does it – may have very little bearing on the status of their career. A financial planner who projects wealth, confidence, and success may in fact be doing very little work, and even doing it dishonestly, as a string of Australian financial planning scandals involving major banks has revealed. A seemingly successful career may be underpinned by fraud, forgery, and cover-ups, but even in the absence of such overt misdeeds, many careers exhibit a disparity between status and the value or meaning of the actual work done.
Beyond jobs and careerism
For people who are interested not only in genuine work as opposed to careerism, but meaningful work above all, the current employment system and job market may have very little to offer. Part of the problem is that, regardless of the work involved, a career or a particular job typically represents an overly rigid narrowing of the full range of work – of actual doing – of which we are individually and collectively capable. In other words, to look for meaningful work only in the confines of established careers and job opportunities risks reinforcing a very narrow, very unfulfilling sense of what work is.
In his 1929 critique of the industrialised economy, agrarian theorist Ralph Borsodi wrote that:
the coming of factory production and the consequent decline in domestic production destroyed the self-sufficiency of men and forced them to supply their wants and desires by buying what formerly they had produced and fashioned for themselves. Men ceased to devote their time and thought to making and producing things for themselves, and devoted them to earning the money essential to the buying of what they needed and wanted.
How often have you heard or experienced for yourself the complaint that current generations lack the breadth of skill of their parents’ or grandparents’? It is not a coincidence that the growth of a careerist culture has seen a diminishing and narrowing of general skills that once fed into and enlarged the sense of “work”, as more than just a nine-to-five salaried occupation.
Not knowing how to change a flat tire might signal the end of civilisation for some observers, fuelling “what’s wrong with young people these days” tirades, but our sense of what should and shouldn’t be common knowledge or common practice is relative. Knowing how to change the oil and service your own car, knowing how to kill a chicken and prepare it for cooking, knowing how to bake bread, make butter, patch clothes, or in general how to make and fix the various things that form the basis and even luxuries of daily life – these too constitute work, and are in most cases a more meaningful and fulfilling form of work than the tasks that make up the average career.
Work is fulfilling because we are, by nature, supposed to exert ourselves in the shaping and forming of our environment for the sake of our own sustenance and flourishing, albeit in a communal context. This is not to dismiss or criticise those whose important vocations contribute to society and provide great benefit to others, but surely we should not take specialised and integral professions such as medicine and law as the model for all employment?
There are services our society requires that can only be performed by specialists. These specialists in turn must be fostered and supported such that they do not suffer from the narrowness of their expertise. Aside from such specialists, is there any real requirement that the rest of us devote ourselves exclusively to a single occupation, to the detriment of the breadth and diversity of our skills and work?
A balance of work
People are obsessed these days with “work-life balance” where work, in terms of a fixed occupation, is set against personal time construed largely as leisure and family or social commitments. Perhaps it would be worth considering instead our “work balance”: the diversity or concentration of our weekly work efforts? I like writing, and I also like baking bread. But why should I strive to pursue one work to the exclusion of the other? I would loathe becoming a full-time baker, and full-time writing would strip the work of all creativity and joy.
We are living in an era where governments see child-care funding increases as a populist move in the context of “helping” parents pursue their careers; and at the other end of life our superannuation and retirement policies revolve around the need to ensure people’s “quality of life” beyond their working years. Few remark on the misfortune of having to sacrifice time with one’s children for the sake of money, or on the deprivation implicit in whole generations who, upon retiring from their single, specialised occupation, are entirely dependent on a massed but finite sum of money to procure their needs until the very end.
As Borsodi noted:
With our present earn-and-buy economy, the ratio of money income to the size of the family fixes economic status. The large family is an economically handicapped family. Every additional child is merely an additional handicap. In the family of today the children, the aged, and the home-staying women are on the liability side of the family balance sheet; only the actual moneymakers are on the asset side.
Only moneymakers are considered an asset because only money is considered a viable means of procuring one’s needs and wants. Consequently, only work that can be directly and reliably converted into money is considered real work, and for most of us that means narrow, specialised occupations and careers.
Yet all of this – however efficiently or convincingly it appears to function in our present society – is built upon the most basic fact of individual work: that we do things in the first instance to secure our needs and wants, and thereafter the needs and wants of family and community. The further our economy drags us from the immediacy of basic work – whether it be through the alienating repetition of the factories, the inhumane drudgery of slave labour, or the insubstantial careerism of a bureaucracy – the less actually rewarding, ennobling, and meaningful it is.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com