‘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.