A Gallup poll found that a staggering 87% of people worldwide don’t feel engaged at work, more specifically only 29% of millennials are engaged at work. It’s also important to remember that millennials have the highest rate of unemployment and underemployment in the U.S. but somehow we are still described as an idealistic generation. The poll also found that again 87% of millennials believe development is important for meaning in a job.
The first insight from this of course is that people do not simply want jobs, like so many politicians claim, but in fact they want good jobs. A good way to think of it is to think if it were possible to add millions of jobs to the economy by simply picking strawberries all day, that would be missing the point! Just imagine how much less people would be engaged at work. People want to go to work and find some kind of meaning without doing too much actual work, in many ways the paycheck is just a byproduct of this. What exactly makes people engaged at work? And more importantly, what makes any type of work more meaningful than others?
The tempting thing to say is that whatever work you choose has to fulfill some unsatisfied desire in someone. This is like if someone gets a job working for a charity then they’ll start to feel better about themselves, or if an artist starts to sell more work and makes a business out of their art. In fact this is the modern idea of what meaningful work is, that it is only the subject matter of the work that makes it possible to find meaning. But this is obviously problematic, considering the close to 5 million people that work in the food service, which from personal experience I can say is less than fulfilling. It’s a romantic idea that everyone can find their dream job and if we work hard we’ll all get to that job that really fulfills us. I hate to be a realist but it’s important for us all to settle at some point, to settle for the best we can. And at that point it becomes more important than ever to ask what really makes work meaningful.
If it’s not the content of the job, then maybe the success really lies in how much a person is allowed to progress in the job. For instance constant promotion and pay raises might make a crappy job just a little more bearable. Which I guess is plausible, maybe a job is purely just for pay and that all meaning to life is supposed to be found outside the workplace. This could be through hobbies, relationships, ect. While in a large part this may be true, it misses a crucial part of what a job actually is. In it’s very basest form, a job is just a social interaction of a group working for a certain goal. When looked at it that way, it is natural to look at the manager of the workplace to see their actions.
If the workplace truly is just a social transaction, then the best way to see the deconstruction of this transaction is to just look at a workplace when business is incredibly slow. When business is high, then the workplace is completely formal, the boss is giving orders, presumably everyone is in their place doing their job and so on. But when business is slow then suddenly everything is informal. It is more accustomed to joke around, interact with coworkers and especially your boss. As the contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out, there is a certain point where you can no longer rebel against your boss because of the friendliness they may act towards you. In a way it is impolite to rebel just because they are not as authoritative at the moment.
At this point in the workplace is someone able to find the most amount of meaning. It is not the work itself, but the almost forced casual interaction with coworkers. In fact the biggest difference in finding meaning in different jobs, is just how much you get along with the coworkers there.
Now this is not to say that you should develop an intimate relationship with everyone you work with, because not everyone there should be your best friend. The beauty of workplace friendships is that there is a certain distance between you and the other person, namely that you are only friends at that particular time. If you notice there is a lot of discretion to keep the relationship that way, and that is also why friendships that try to evolve outside the workplace often end in disaster, because they overstepped their limits. That’s really what meaningful work is. You go to the place, do the work (half-assed as you want), joke with the people there, maybe have contempt for the boss, go home and continue your life. The meaning is not the job itself, but the relationships we form and the lessons we learn from it to apply to our regular life.
This is why people that pursue a job as their meaning to life feel so empty in the end. The job is not the meaning, in fact in many cases the job is the part you’re supposed to despise. It is simply the thing you do to continue the other part of your life. In the picking strawberries example I used above, it could then be argued that this job is no different than being an artist or CEO. In some superficial way this may be true, but the problem is that picking fruit lends even less meaning to every other aspect of life than being an artist does. You don’t develop as personal of relationships due to the strenuousness of the work, you don’t have as many applications in daily life, you have less resources in daily life, and so on.