Meaning Making & Dying To Work

In a world where work is our master and finding “meaningful work” is the goal, we undermine the meaning of millions of people who do not have access to those types of jobs

In 2013, an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch died after working 72 hours and having a seizure in the shower. Yet, everyone involved in the case was hesitant to blame work for this outcome. Here is the coroner:

“He was a young man living life to the full and he was clearly enjoying his time in London and, whilst it’s possible that fatigue brought about the fatal seizure, it is also possible that it just happened. And it is something that does just happen.

In Japan, there is no pretending. There is a well known word for death from overwork — karoshi. In 2015, there were 1,456 cases in Japan filed against employers that referenced “karoshi.”

While it is clear that we should not want work to kill people, it is less clear the destructive damage that our modern conception of work has on our world and on the average “worker”.

Our modern conception of work is based on a flawed conception that work is and can be a full-time job that is stable, provides meaning, community, purpose, comfort, pays for your healthcare and retirement.

If this conception of work applied to everyone, perhaps it might be a great thing. For everyone unable to secure such magical employment, they are left to deal with the unintended consequences of our unquestioned faith in work.

When we position work as a way to extract meaning, we make people feel worse

Hate your job? Just try to find something you are more passionate about. Quit your job. Move to a different company. Invest in a personal development retreat. Read this e-book.

Heck, even take a year off. As long as you can sell that year off as “work” on yourself — a personal growth and a journey that made you more valuable to workers — then it works. Just get back to work.

The roots of looking to work with such profundity comes from the Protestant view of work as a “calling.” Philosopher Andrew Taggart details this philosophy:

The “Protestant view of work” is based on the idea that work is just about the best sort of thing that one can do with one’s life. Protestants describe work as a “calling,” a harmony between the individual’s work, whatever this might be, and the divine purpose.

The desperate search for meaning is perhaps a side effect of our modern culture. The German philosopher Eric Fromm, reflecting on the increased individuality of modern society, notes that it came with a trade-off:

Modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless.

While finding meaning at work sounds great, it is likely only achievable for a small minority and for the rest, it creates an incurable anxiety or emptiness from the fact that many jobs are “bullshit jobs” and that a lot of jobs and work exist mostly to fulfill our ideal of employment for all.

The people who love work are “educated” and working more

Overall, people are experiencing more “leisure” than in the past. However, it is not distributed equally. Economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst showed that there has been a steady increase in the amount of time people spend in leisure:

However, they showed that the amount of leisure among the “highly-educated” has actually gone down!

The more surprising discovery, however, is a corresponding leisure gap has opened up between the highly-educated and less-educated. Low-educated men saw their leisure hours grow to 39.1 hours in 2003–2007, from 36.6 hours in 1985. Highly-educated men saw their leisure hours shrink to 33.2 hours from 34.4 hours. (Mr. Hurst says that education levels are a “proxy” for incomes, since they tend to correspond).

A similar pattern emerged for women. Low-educated women saw their leisure time grow to 35.2 hours a week from 35 hours. High-educated women saw their leisure time decrease to 30.3 hours from 32.2 hours. Educated women, in other words, had the largest decline in leisure time of the four groups.

Future of work thought leader Jacob Morgan shares a common refrain in the public discussion about work.

“work is life and life is work. We spend a majority of our adult lives working, which means what you do is not just a job, or a career–it’s a part of you.”

This quote is the scary realization of an idea put forth by German Philosopher Josef Pieper called “total work” which is the “process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing else.” (HT: Taggart who helped popularize this idea and has a compelling newsletter on total work).

While meaning, purpose and fulfillment from work sounds like a great idea, it has the unintended side effect of calling more attention to the fact that many jobs suck, millions of people struggle to meet their basic needs and many more lack the stability to quit jobs that lack meaning.

I may seem that the antidote to work that sucks is making it “meaningful” — but I will argue that’s a false dichotomy. The opposite of meaningless work may seem like it should be meaningful work — but that devalues the work and lives of too many people.

In fact, we find that the people that work the most have the most education.

Work has been transformed into something that the well-off and well educated use as ways to express themselves and create meaning for themselves. However, in assuming this is how everyone should do it, they likely lead to a destruction of meaning for the broader society.

This is evident when we look at the experience of being unemployed or laid off. This circumstance has been linked to adverse health effects, loss of relationships and even in extreme cases, suicide.

Harvard Business Review reinforces the shame of being unemployed but does not question our conception of work. Instead, the author recommends “pushing yourself physically,” followed by making “10 networking calls a day.”

This shame may be justified. Research from the University of Stirling found that becoming unemployed can lead people to “become less friendly, less hard-working, and less open to new experiences.”

By focusing on “jobs” we ignore more than half our country.

BLS and Other Sources, 2018 (all approximates)

Only 155 million people, or less than half, are classified as “employed.” Approximately 38% of Americans have coveted full-time jobs. Yet, most of the discussion about public policy, the American dream, and success in life are framed around the full-time job.

The number of people who are employed has been decreasing for almost 30 years. There are different ways to figure out who is employed versus unemployed, but the total “participation rate” is a good high level indicator of anyone over the age of 16 that is working. Despite increases in the rate from the 1960’s to about 1990 (largely due to increasing numbers of women in the workforce), the participation rate has been decreasing for almost 30 years and has been steady at about 63% for the last couple of years:

Participation Rate — Source: BLS

If we look at “prime-age” workers, or people aged 25–54, there appears to be a maximum at about 80% of that population, which it has only passed a few times in the last 30 years:

Prime-Age Worker Participation Rate — Source: BLS

Underlying these two trends has been a long-term increase in the number of women in the workforce and a long-term decrease in the number of men in the workforce. However, the number of women in the workforce peaked around the year 2000 and has been slowly declining ever since.

Economists have struggled to explain these long-term trends with a single bullet explanation, but there does not appear to be much upside to the number of people entering the labor force.

Even if the participation rates of prime-age workers hold steady, we will see a continued reduction in the overall participation rate due to an aging population. With so much of the national narrative of the “American Dream” centered around the full-time job, we undermine the ability of the majority of Americans to understand what role they play in building their own dream and story.

“Work is the master of the modern world.”

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

This quote from Andy Beckett captures today’s reality. Work is our master and to question work is akin to admitting insanity.

In 2011, Huy Pham walked into the Costa Mesa city hall in California. He had been a maintenance worker with the city, but this would be his last day on the job. After receiving notice of being laid off, he decided to end his life later that day by jumping off a bridge. It is impossible to know what was going through his mind, but to ignore the role of work and his identity is to ignore reality.

In a world where work is our master and finding “meaningful work” is the goal, we undermine the meaning of millions of people who do not have access to those types of jobs or are at constant risk of losing it like Huy Pham. Our modern conception of work needs to be questioned — not to create more meaningful work — but to build a society that respects the humanity of all.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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