My PhD research was in the philosophy of work, which included looking at work from existential, economic, and ethical points of view. Trying to answer the question “What is Meaningful Work?” was more or less its main aim.
This blog originally appeared as an answer to a Quora post. It is mostly an explainer, with a little bit of my philosophical view at the end. You can find out more about my specific views at my website, Philosophy2u.
There, are many ways in which meaningful work (MW, hereafter) can be defined. I’ll break down the idea into three main categories and conclude with what I think is a great place to start from both a reflective and practical point of view when trying to find and do MW.
The three main categories are MW at:
the society-wide level
the institutional (business and orgs) level
Meaningful Work within Society
In philosophical terms, this encompasses political and economic questions pertaining to how MW as a good of society might be nurtured and developed. I say “might” because there are a lot of philosophers who think that MW is NOT a necessary component of a just society. More technically in philosophical terms, this is cashed out as to whether or not MW is a good (under the remit of distributive justice, our how the goods of society are distributed amongst its inhabitants).
Skeptics of MW think that a just society does not require MW in order for it to be just. This is because they mostly view work as a personal preference. One can very well live a meaningful life without having a meaningful job. Likewise, you can have a just society where MW is not something the majority of people experience. In fact, you can even say that realistically speaking, there will never be a condition of society in which all work is meaningful. So, that leaves (usually) a large portion of the population having to do meaningless and mundane work.
So for these skeptics, the issue of MW is contradictory to the project of creating a just society—though there are counter arguments as to how to compensate for meaningless work. This can include financial compensation to a greater degree for those who take up meaningless tasks. Another argument is that eventually automation will remove meaningless tasks from the workplace (though I doubt this).
Another worry entertained by skeptics is that in order to institute MW across society, it will take a lot of government intervention. Skeptical worries of this ilk tend to derive from right libertarian leanings, where any intervention by an authority risks being a violation of one’s individual rights. Why should a government tell me what MW is; and worse yet coerce me to do it?
A more esoteric view that is related to this worry is that Western civilization has over-valued the worth of work. And we have failed to appreciate the value of leisure and idle time. There is actually a lot of mileage in this view, and looking at what Max Weber termed the "Protestant ethic" of work seems to fit with how much of the West (at least Americans) think of work as a way to valorize our existence.
I am not a skeptic of MW, though I take most of these worries seriously and think there are ways to answer or at least mitigate them. But articulating these views is not what this post is about.
Meaningful Work at the Institutional Level
How can businesses and organizations make the work which their employees do meaningful? Do they care to? Should they care to?
In my consultation work, I tend to find that the business which care about MW have the following qualities:
They tend to be doing well financially.
They are forward-looking.
They care about their employees and work culture.
They want to make their work culture unique (in view of competitors) by addressing employee personal development.
Not all of my clients had each one of these features — though one did. For example, I worked with one start-up community business which was a local cafe whose social enterprise revolved around helping former prisoners get back into work and develop skills that would allow them to find a new career path. The cafe did not have a lot of money, so on a pro-bono basis, I helped them find their own identity and help them to articulate what exactly the business does on a daily basis to meet the social enterprise aim.
Ok, enough of me.
Assuming a business is genuinely interested in MW, it helps to point out that providing employees with a forum for engaging with questions of what MW is and how to bring it about actually help with the “bottom line”. It:
creates loyalty to company which cares for them
helps with employee retention
helps with development and career progression and fit
In sum, there are expansive theoretical and tactile practical ways in which businesses can facilitate MW. It’s often a bespoke process, and I like to use a bit of personal development, organizational development, and virtue ethics to get things rolling.
Changes to businesses might be significant, depending on how each is structured. Or, things might not change much in terms of practice, just the addition of more employee-centered events and offerings.
Meaningful Work at the Individual Level
Obviously, what is meaningful for each individual varies. What one person finds meaningful may not fit another. For philosophers, this issue encapsulates a huge dilemma about meaningfulness.
Either meaning is something universal and objective; or it is individual and subjective.
If it’s the latter, then MW is whatever each individual makes it to be—in which case, there’s not much to say except report what others think. Moreover, this view means that at a society-wide and institutional level, we really can’t do anything to make work meaningful. This is because making it so will involve committing to certain features, values, and practices which others may not find meaningful at all.
So, you see the problem with the individual-subjective view.
The universal-objective view faces the problem of trying to find that common ground or set of values on which we can all agree count as meaningful. Empirically, this just doesn’t work. One person’s meaningful work is another person’s nightmare.
I’ve expressed this dilemma as a caricature. As you might have guessed, I think the right answer lies somewhere in between.
One way forward is not to think of meaningful values—that is, what you or I find meaningful at an individual level. Instead, let’s try to think of what each of us requires in order for us to live a flourishing life.
Ok, that sounds very vague and general. So let me push things along with this thought. What if we could isolate specific capacities that each of us finds important to living well? For example, the capacity to imagine, to sympathize, to work together, to lead, to relax, to be challenged, to go reflect, etc.
Since work comprises a great deal of our existence, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that it should help us cultivate these capacities?
The Capabilities Approach
I am a big fan of what’s called the Capabilities Approach. It derives from the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle and has been developed in the present by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the economist Amartya Sen. (It’s not just these two, of course. The Capabilities Approach is entertained by many philosophers these days.)
I referred to capacities above. These are more or less capabilities. There is no set list of capabilities that philosophers agree on as being central (surprise!). Nussbaum has a featured list, but Sen won’t commit to anything set in stone.
Nonetheless, there are ways we can identify what’s important for us and therefore might be a good candidate to be included in the work we do in order to make it meaningful.
For example, I mentioned above the capacities to lead and be challenged. Philosophers will often group these capacities under the label “autonomy”. I actually don’t care for this term, but let’s stick with it. We can say, therefore, that for work to count as meaningful, one of the capabilities it needs to nurture is being autonomous. It has to encourage and teach employees how to be independent, make their own decisions, analyze risk, etc.
Practically, this depends on the nature of the business, but having a rotating job schedule where employees shift between roles, helps to encourage autonomy. As well, new duties with ownership of goals is a good way to cultivate autonomy. “You want this project? It’s yours!”
Note: all this presumes a great deal of support from the company, not just throwing employees into the thick of it.
A favorite capability of mine is imagination.
To cultivate the capability to imagine has so many benefits, not least of all:
the ability to see oneself in another’s shoes (empathy and sympathy);
the ability to see one’s life going in a different direction.
This latter one is important. If you have been told by others that you are “stupid” or “will never be a doctor”, etc., the ability to imagine otherwise is not only the first step to overcoming these barriers, but it is also the constantly running “program” in the background since the imagination can nurture an individual by allowing their vision to “pull them from ahead”.
As you can tell, I have a lot to say on MW! I hope this blog has been helpful and provided some insight.
The question of “What is meaningful work?” and how it can be instituted is what drew me from the depths of a career in the private sector to committing to a PhD in my mid 30s. And now, I’ve left academia to try and bring some of my research and insights back to the working world.
About the Author I'm a former academic philosopher currently researching and writing on a freelance basis. Much of my work features for The Art of the Bubble. You can follow me on Quora and/or Medium. Or read more of my public philosophy blogs on Philosophy2u.
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