In case you’re interested in a break, this column does not mention the pandemic.
Instead, it reflects on an old question that has spanned a number of new books about the nature of work and what is wrong with it. Jill Lepore wrote a survey of these books this month in the New Yorker, finding that a common theme is that the authors don’t like what they see, and they think things were better in the past.
Whether or not work is worse now depends a lot on what outcomes one wants to be the focus. One thing that does seem new—as well as worse—in the contemporary workplace compared to earlier generations falls under the heading of meaningful work. The idea here is that work should be more than a means to an end, more than a paycheck that allows you to do other things. It should have a purpose that fulfills us and, at the extreme, the idea is that work can and perhaps should provide the meaning in our life.
Studies in psychology and sociology beginning in the 1930s began to ask whether there were basic, intrinsic human needs that could be frustrated or met depending on how work was organized. Anyone who took a management course in college or even a training course is likely to be familiar with those ideas: We want interaction with other people, we want control over what we do, we want to see the outcome of what we do. That interest hasn’t changed.
What did change began in the 1990s with the rise of spectacularly successful Silicon Valley companies. The work in those companies—starting something new, throwing yourself into it, seeing something influential at the end—seemed not only new but highly desirable, even romantic. Working in them was seen not primarily as a way to make huge amounts of money but rather as a way of doing something really meaningful.
Meaningful work is not necessarily the same as doing virtuous work, such as jobs in social welfare organizations, the arts or even in parts of government. The difference seems to have more to do with the ability to immerse yourself in something, to have some control over what you do and to have the ability to see impact from it. For example, working for a corporation, probably not meaningful. Working for a start-up, meaningful, even if the job titles were the same.
These are jobs into which you can throw yourself completely, which means that your efforts do become part of your identity. Getting to work at 9 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m.? Well, that’s a sign of a job that doesn’t matter. Not meaningful. If you have one of those jobs, say goodbye to a meaningful life the way it is defined.
There is no limit as to how much you can contribute in these jobs, or another way to put it, no end to how long or hard you could work. A test of whether a job is really meaningful is whether it completely consumes you. This world, not surprisingly, is disproportionately populated by younger people, especially those straight out of school who are still defining their identity. This is different from ambition, which has always been with us, and the people working so hard to get ahead of their peers.
I can remember seeing this for the first time in the mid-1990s in our MBA students who had just left jobs to come back to school. Except for those who worked in consulting or investment banking, most reported that they worked 9-to-5 jobs and they were bored. Since then, virtually no one comes in having a 9-to-5 job—even if the job title is the same as ones their peers had decades before. They weren’t bored, but they were worn out from working crazy hours.
Why does this matter? One reason is that it does not seem to end well for those chasing meaningful jobs. Because lots of people want these jobs, the employers don’t have to pay much to fill them. People end up working extremely hard, not making much money and rarely having any opportunities to advance because there is no place to advance to.
One might say that having a job you can really throw yourself into is certainly better than having a job where you don’t care to do so—except that, when you have one of these jobs, there is nothing left to throw elsewhere, no time and energy that could go to family or self-development or even just to have fun. The fact that, by some measures, the majority of U.S. workers don’t even take all the vacation time to which they are entitled reflects this.
What’s the point? None of this is new to people who study and advocate work/life balance. Implicit in many of these new critiques, though, is the idea that the willingness of people to make their work their life is keeping wages down, keeping vacation time and other non-work benefits low and making it difficult for the material conditions of work to improve. Perhaps we should rethink about what we convey to our children and to young people generally about what constitutes a good job.