‘Meaningful Work’ as the Last Motivator of Overwork

I am deeply concerned about overwork and about the overvaluation of work in Western culture. I have had far too many philosophical conversations with young and old over the years not to be so concerned. Most insidious, I have come to believe, has been the coinage of “meaningful work” and the hungry aspiration on the part of many to do meaningful work. I realize that this claim about its being so insidious may sound paradoxical, hyperbolic, or simply flat out wrong.

But we must face the facts (1-3, 6), a reasonable prediction (4), and a potent interpretation (5):

1.) According to Max Roser, a visual data researcher at Oxford, looking at data from 1974-2013: “Income inequality in the US is rising (probably not good)” and “Incomes are stagnating for most Americans (bad).”

2.) A very large number of people has credit card and student loan debt. Average college debt is $27,000 USD and up to $200,000 USD for those finishing law school or medical school. (As I have argued elsewhere, the perverse point of debt is to ensure that we’re committed to working.)

3.) Millennials in their early 20s are changing jobs once every 16 months and as often as once ever 3 years for those in their mid-20s.

4.)  Technological innovation in the coming decades will likely wipe out well-paying jobs in industries that have, so far, been most immune to such attacks.

5.) Most work today–especially service work–is manifestly what David Graeber calls “bullshit work.”

6.) It is becoming more commonplace for work to include (1) “shadow work” (all the things one is nudged to do outside of an office) and (2) “emotional labor” (all the ways that people are supposed to emote chipperness.) Shadow work is spreading to part-time employment and emotional labor to from lower to higher ranks.

Such is meant to open up a more accurate picture of work life today. Now for a few theses:

I. Most have adopted the Max Weberian view that we live in order to work.

II. Most believe that we are “supposed” to be working throughout the good part of each day and for the rest of our lives.

III. Those I speak with in entrepreneurial and innovation circles unduly narrow down “meaningful work” to that which is identified with “social change.”

The facts, the interpretations, the theses all show the extent of the mess we’re in.

Now for the conceptual innovation: “meaningful work.” I believe that the concept “meaningful work” operates as the last huge motivator to get people to work so much, for so long, with such dogged commitment to the point of wear-out, burnout, and death. If there were an evil demon, he would say to us, “I will not give you more money; you’ll get less. I won’t give you greater stability; you will feel greater and greater precarity. I won’t give you more leisure time or anything like this. No, everything about life will be harder. What I will give you is ‘meaningful work,’ and because you ‘love’ doing ‘meaningful work,’ you will put everything you have into it. So, you will be doing what you love!”

There is no such evil demon at this stage of capitalism. It is worse than that: a form of self-enslavement in which, as one conversation partner put it recently, “the winners are losers.”

Must we continue to fall into this trap, hungering after “meaningful work”? Or could we begin to think otherwise and look elsewhere? Could we start off with thinking about how to live simply? What role should work play in a well-led life? What role should leisure play? If we do start to think otherwise (and how!), we’ll quickly discover that many of our assumptions about how we live will have to be interrogated and let go of and that we’ll have to live otherwise.

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The Ugly Reality of Work: Bullshit Jobs and Emotional Labor

A most disturbing trend in the service industry (but also beyond service) is that toward emotional labor. What makes this trend disturbing and revolting is the connection between bullshit work (restylized in Orwellian lingo of the twenty-first century as “meaningful work”) and the masking associating with emotional labor. The correlation proposed: the more bullshit work, the more emotional labor.

Predictably, from 1930 to the present the economy in the developing world has moved from manufacturing (which has become largely automated as well as outsourced) to service and technology. This, however, has not created more leisure but instead more work. How can this be so? I quote at great length from David Graeber’s potent short article, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”:

[R]ather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is exactly what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the very sort of problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

What Graeber assumes in this article is that there is a clear distinction between “bullshit jobs” (the many) and “meaningful work” (the rare, the few). I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of this distinction since it seems to allow great numbers of millennials and Generation Xers to blindly believe that the sort of work they are doing (“meaningful”) is an exception, never mind the poor salaries, lack of job security, dwindling benefits, dubious self-improvement workshops, and genuine precarity. No, most work today is manifestly bullshit work and we must face up to this fact.

Here is where emotional labor comes in, for how is it otherwise possible for individuals not to wake up and see that they’re manifesting doing bullshit work? More: how is it possible to motivate workers to keep doing bullshit day after day? Well, first get them to think that what they’re doing has “meaning,” has “purpose,” is “inspiring,” is “valuable.” Pump them full of those philosophical terms during their formative years. Then second get them to change not only their behavior but also their attitude toward the shit they’re doing.

Emotional labor is said to come in two varieties: “surface” or “surface acting” and “deep acting.” In the first case, I pretend, say, to be glad and cheery, but while doing so I am masking what I actually feel (say, discontent and churlish). In the second case, I’ve gotten myself to believe that I am actually cheery and so am emoting chipperness. Contrary to expectations, what is more perverse is “deep acting” for it goes to show that the individual has lost an important distinction between what is worth emoting (actual love for my beloved) and what is not worth emoting (a subtle, appropriate distaste for a smarmy colleague) so that he readily believes that doing this shit is meaningful, beneficial, valuable, etc. etc.

But that is not all. The perversity is to be felt in those who are “lucky enough” to have jobs that they are supposed to feel gratitude for doing the sort of bullshit work that others would “love to do.” “It’s a privilege just to be working.” Oh my. Hence, they can’t even admit to themselves without a sense of guilt that the sort of thing they’re doing is actually a bunch of crap. Mask that from themselves in a bout of self-deception and some “surface acting.” Then heap onto this perversity further ideological layers–all the positive psychology that would have us think positively about all sorts of nonsense as well as all the mindfulness that would have us become calmer when we should be justifiably angry in the face of injustice–and you begin to sense the sheer enormity of the mess we’re in.

In sum, the more bullshit, the more emotional labor; the more emotional labor, the more guilt and misgivings; the more guilt and misgivings, the greater my efforts at being mindful and thinking positively. Delusion. What has gone missing is a clear-eyed perception of reality.