Meaningful work for all
February 13, 2011, 4:44 am
Filed under: Editorializing | Tags:

I recently read a pretty decent paper on finding “meaningful” work for twenty-somethings. As you might guess, it centered on CSR and social entrepreneurship, with some international development (unfortunately) thrown in at the end. I’ll admit, if I didn’t have similar motivations, I wouldn’t have entered SRI (or any of my prior jobs, for that matter). And I am not by any means wishing that nonprofits would disappear. But I think the fact that the search for “meaningful jobs” is so elusive reveals some fundamental problems.

First, there are only so many jobs that focus on creatively solving the world’s social and environmental problems. To claim that these are the only “meaningful” jobs does a serious disservice to everyone that is not in one of those jobs — people who provide essential products and services, people who enrich the lives of coworkers and customers, people who take pride in what they do. In other words, the problem might not be in the job but in our perception of “meaning.” [Though if your job actually has you making the world a worse place, then you definitely have every right and obligation to look for better work, if not also to actively work to rectify your employer’s behavior, from inside or out. And if your job is leaving your exhausted or otherwise unhappy with your situation, unfortunately I must break the news that “meaningful” work also has its share of bad bosses and long hours.]

Second, we are wrapping far too much of our identity in what we do for work, looking for a “meaningful job” when maybe what we need is a meaningful life. If we can support ourselves with a 9-5 job (or similar), then why not find meaning in the off hours, whether by volunteering or pursuing hobbies or growing spiritually or actively engaging your community in your capacity as a citizen? Honestly, if I were going to restructure work, I’d be less concerned with creating “meaningful” jobs than with providing sufficient free time (and more of a safety net so people are able to leave jobs that aren’t good). [On that point, how much more productive are we now than 50 years ago, and yet we have to work just as much or more?]

There are other structural issues as well: why do we have so many jobs that (we consider) less meaningful? and why do do-goodin’ jobs pay so little? and what do we do with jobs that actively are un-good (e.g. mortgage brokers for subprime loans)? and why don’t we have better tools for finding jobs? I’ve far more questions than answers. [Though I have some suggestions on the last question.] But I will say that I think the French have some pretty good ideas, including focusing on being damned good at your job and being respected for being good at that job, even if that job is in service or other manual work, and that all workers have a right to free time and retirement.

Closer to home, I also like the model of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, NY. Everyone that shops at this grocery store in Brooklyn must work: 2 hours 45 minutes every four weeks. Whether you are a check-out worker or shelf stocker or bathroom cleaner or cheese cutter, and regardless of what you do with the rest of your month, you work the same 2 hours 45 minutes. As it’s a cooperative enterprise, customers tend to interact with workers as equals (because all customers are workers and all workers are customers). Me, I’m a cashier, but I consider those 2 hours 45 minutes to be every bit as meaningful my office job in SRI. And my shopping experiences are more meaningful there than at, say, Target. It’s not without its problems — not everyone has an equal amount of discretionary time, and there are more members than there are jobs to give them — but for this place to be running so well (better stocked than Trader Joe’s!) for so long (over 30 years!) is damned impressive.

Which is all to say — there’s hope. And I think it may be related to the much repeated Mahatma Gandhi quote (which I’m only starting to understand myself): Be the change you hope to see in the world.


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[…] not just the position but the culture and mission of the organization [because my generation wants meaningful work, yo] and the quality of life of the geographic location and expected salary […]

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