Richard Reeves - Our Imprint on the world

We value work only if it has meaning and purpose – pay and perks come second. Being able to make a difference is the real reward for our endeavours

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010
The lazy days of August are when we get the chance to read trashy novels, lie about on beaches or in parks and drink to the sunset. It is also, though, when we get the chance to think about our work. The rest of the year we just think about our jobs: the meetings, deadlines, projects and politics of the day-to-day. But on sun-kissed beaches, or after a jug or two of local vino, the submerged questions break the surface: What's it all for? Am I doing what I truly want? Where is the meaning in my work? September is the time of year when the highest proportion of people say they want to change their career direction. There is a growing research interest in ‘meaning at work', as it slowly dawns on professions and organisations that the motivational impact of pay and perks is eroding. According to research by US anthropologist Robert Wuthnow, a desire to find a job with more meaning is a more common cause for exit than the pursuit of a fatter pay packet. Four out of five say ‘making the world a better place' through their work was very important or absolutely essential to them. Seeing his opportunity, the leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, has called for a new focus on ‘ethical work'. These calls for meaningful, ethical or quality work are all well and good. But we have to ask some deeper questions first. For a start, what is work, anyway? None of the standard definitions is adequate. Is it something you are paid for? No – unless we want to argue that dusting and ironing in our own homes be relabelled ‘houseleisure'. Is it, then, something involuntary? Not if we think the term ‘voluntary work' has any meaning. Is work anything that's a drudge, an activity lacking pleasure? No – many people are highly satisfied with their work and a good proportion are happier at ‘work' than at ‘home'. Perhaps work is an activity dictated by others? No. Self-employed people dictate their own work, and more and more people have at least some say over their work. Is work something undertaken in a particular place? No. More than two million people are now teleworkers. So what is work? I think it is a means by which we transform the world around us – whether by digging a garden, raising a child, building a house, curing an ill person or making a new product. Our work, regardless of whether it's paid or where it's done, is our imprint on the world. Thomas Aquinas wrote that ‘to live well is to work well, or display a good activity'. The jobs that are most demoralising are those in which the effort made by the individual appears to have no impact – to change nothing. This is why the myth of Sisyphus is so terrible and compelling. Each time he pushes the rock to the top of hill, it rolls back down again. His labour makes no difference; it is to no end – and is therefore not really work at all. There are plenty of people who feel a bit like Sisyphus, repeating activities that to them seem fairly pointless, except as a means of securing an income. This is why one of the most important roles of a leader is to ensure that people can see that their efforts are connected to an important change in the world. A cleaner at NASA is reported to have told visitors that his job was ‘helping to put men on the moon'. The tale is almost certainly apocryphal but circulates still precisely because it makes this point: that work must have a purpose, and the higher that purpose, the more meaningful the work. Job satisfaction in professions such as law and accountancy has been declining in recent years, even as salaries have gone up. This may be because the professional ethos of these occupations has been eroded by competitive pressures. If lawyers and accountants cease to see themselves as providing vital social goods and as custodians of certain codes of integrity and service, but instead see themselves as profit-maximising economic units, they will almost certainly become richer – but their job satisfaction is likely to tumble. Given that being happier at work has a much bigger effect on overall happiness than the number of zeroes on your salary, this is a poor trade-off. Work, too, can be our pride and joy. ‘Work, I imagine, is not a good in itself,' wrote John Stuart Mill in a brilliant essay on the position of black slaves. ‘While we talk only of work, and not of its object, we are far from the root of the matter; or if it may be called the root, it is a root without flower or fruit.' The desire to do fruitful work is part of the essence of humanity. Now that the need for food and shelter is no longer propelling our efforts – in our country at least – the quality of our working lives is becoming a vital issue. In what some scholars are calling a post-materialist age, the issue of work is beginning to eclipse the simpler one of providing jobs. People derive great benefit from doing voluntary activities, at least in part because their jobs offer so little. The truth is that work, properly defined, is the process by which we make an account of ourselves in the world, and how we serve each other. But too many jobs have had this essential human element hollowed out by the fetishisation of economic productivity. People often return from their holidays saying stuff like ‘there's more to life than work'. What they are really saying is they want more life in their work. And that should no longer be too much to ask.

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