Updated: Dec 10, 2021
The general idea of meaningful work is that the job one does or the career one adopts in some way contributes to a meaningful life.
While the idea of meaningfulness is broad, academic literature tends to shy away from the notion that meaningfulness is whatever one thinks it to be. There are good philosophical reasons for this that relate to the problem of relativism and subjectivism about meaning (which I treat elsewhere). But there are also more practical reasons for this that are worth outlining.
Why Meaningfulness is Not What You Think It Is
If what we take to be meaningful about work is solely based on what each individual thinks is meaningful, then:
One might worry that an individual may have a blinkered or inhibited view of a meaningful life.
Economic research has shown that people from working-class backgrounds tend to say they are happy with their lives, as opposed to their middle-class counterparts who tend to express dissatisfaction about the way their respective lives are going. Why?
Working class expectations of what constitutes a happy life are much lower than those held by the middle class. It’s one thing to feel satisfied by putting food on the table each day as opposed to feeling anxious about not having become a successful lawyer, doctor, or entrepreneur.
We tend to think meaningfulness is not just an individual thing.
A natural sentiment about co-existing with our fellow human beings is that we should all benefit as society progresses. John Stuart Mill took this to be a central principle of his moral theory of utilitarianism. Ideally, progress made in one area should have a positive impact on other areas of life, the population, and even the natural world.
So, for example, it seems fair to believe that it’s not enough for me to be happy with my career when this career disadvantages others or contributes more ill to the world than good. Working to clear a forest might provide me a sense of happiness with respect to a higher wage and standard of living, but this seems problematic in relation to how such work contributes to global warming.
N.B. I recognize that simply advocating for not taking such jobs is not the easy solution given how such jobs occur in under-developed economic environments where a living wage is more pressing than worries about global warming. For more on this, listen to Martin Bunzl on squaring this economic circle.
Thinking about meaningfulness on a broader scale enables us to discover what might make a more meaningful life.
It’s a basic principle of doing philosophy: discussing ideas with others often leads to clarity and a better understanding of the topic.
And this is a perfect segue to filling in some details for us to consider as to whether our work—or if you are a business owner or executive, your organization—cultivates meaningful work.
Ideas about Meaningful Work
There are at least two ways we can think of meaningfulness in work. One is how the individual benefits from the work they do, or some aspect of it. (Not every feature of one’s work has to be meaningful.) A second is how an organization cultivates meaningfulness and provides real opportunities (not just lip-service or box-ticking exercises) for its employees.
Whatever the case, we can view the list below as points of intersection between an individual and an organization, points which offer opportunities for development through critical thinking, practice, and engagement.
Autonomy is often mentioned on the list of the important things about work. What one does should not just be following a list of rules and completing rote tasks (though this is necessary in some work). There should be opportunities to deliberate and choose how and what one should do. This freedom creates a sense of responsibility and ownership, as well as a greater investment in the organizational culture and identity—one is making choices that contribute to how the business goes. Developing autonomy in jobs also cultivates the depth of knowledge and experience among colleagues, which helps with clarity about progression and saves on employee retention.
Self-respect / Self-esteem
Jobs that allow an employee to feel good about themselves as both a worker and a person is important. Does your work make you a better person? Especially in sectors of work that are not socially esteemed (e.g. janitorial tasks, frontline cashiering), it is important for employers to explore ways in which workers in these roles can see what they do as contributing to how they see themselves and how others see them.
Personal Development (character, psychology, imagination)
I’ve done quite a bit of work in this area. You’d be surprised how much one’s work magnifies personal strengths and weaknesses. Work is therefore also a place where we can develop as better persons. And why not? We spend a great deal of our time in the workplace!
Personal development includes developing our character (e.g. confidence in speaking), our psychology (e.g. feeling safe in speaking candidly), and the imagination. Imagination?
I’m a big proponent of helping to educate and expand our capacities to imagine. It not only helps with the development of empathy, or recognizing and identifying with others, but it also cultivates our creativity and resourcefulness in meeting unexpected and unfamiliar challenges. And finally, a healthy imagination allows us to see further into the future—if where we want to be in five or ten years ought to change or be adjusted.
Social responsibility is an aspect of moral development, and I know that some business owners hesitate with this since the worry is that social responsibility may in some way make workers counter-productive. But this is only a problem if the business has problems (morally).
There are many other aspects of moral development—e.g. development of virtues, being able to see right from wrong, etc. What is important to take away is that nowadays we are expecting business and organizations to be more morally aware and responsible. So the worry expressed by the hesitant business owner above is really a reactive stance; organizations need to get proactive about transitioning into the emerging morally-aware climate.
Can we do it?
Can we make work meaningful? I think if we adopt distinctive models trying to do so, we may not “finally” get there, but I am wagering we will learn a great deal about ourselves, our colleagues, and our business aspirations. This momentum might help us make significant changes that align more amicably with a flourishing human life.
Want to learn more or talk to me about meaningful work? Please get in touch!
Todd Mei is former Associate Professor of Philosophy (University of Kent) who specializes in the philosophy of work, ethics, and classical economic theory. He is now a consultant for businesses and is a podcaster for Living Philosophy, a public series exploring ideas about life and the inspiring second-lives of people.