The Quest for Meaning at Work

At what point do you stop simply “earning a living,” and instead begin living? Brian A. Hoey explores the impulse to pull up the stakes and seek satisfaction in every aspect of life—starting with work.

Opting for Elsewhere

“Opting for Elsewhere” by Brian A. Hoey explores the human impulse to start over, relocate, and remake oneself.

Photo courtesy Vanderbilt University Press

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Why do you need to “have a job” to fit in with societal norms? In Opting for Elsewhere (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014), Brian A. Hoey explores the increasingly prevalent, human impulse to start over, to relocate and remake oneself. These “lifestyle migrants” are enveloped in the culture of the middle class American Dream and the promise of an ever-expanding frontier, and their stories illuminate historical and anthropological trends in the modern world. The following excerpt is from Chapter 7, “Place of Work,” which delves into the often overlooked desire for satisfaction, happiness, and meaning at work.

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The object of living is work, experience, and happiness. There is joy in work. All that money can do is buy us someone else’s work in exchange for our own. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something. —Henry Ford, quoted in Forbes, January 1, 1963 

Place of Work

Despite significant changes in the nature of work, it remains a central part of the working person’s life. It reaches outward and influences other spheres of our lives at the same time that it also reaches inward and shapes who we are and how we think about ourselves. It is not merely earning a livelihood; it inevitably contributes to our personal development—albeit at times in ways or in directions we might not consciously choose. Work has always allowed people to find a place in the world as well as to be placed in the world by others. In simple terms, work can establish a role or purpose for the individual within a community or network of social relations composed of such roles.

Although some may try to separate and compartmentalize their means of livelihood as distinct from personal lives, these cannot be practically separated because it is through work that people create not only individual lives but also—through collective action—the very conditions of social existence. Work may serve as a source of “ego boundaries,” the limits and outlines of personal and social identity. Work establishes a coherent set of expectations for the particular rhythm, direction, and definition of our lives.

Like so many social categories, “the job” has been taken for granted as a thing of lasting value and dependable stability. The idea of having a job, however, is founded on a distinct cultural history in the West. In the Western world, at least, it has come to be taken as a given—a fundamental part of being human. We can trace the origins of this particular notion of work to the Industrial Revolution. Although we may now shudder at the thought of a jobless world, the modern job was something fashioned to service the economic realities of the industrializing world in the nineteenth century. Many at that time saw the idea of discretely packaged vocations as a violation of people’s basic freedoms, and it was met with no shortage of criticism. Nevertheless, the job as we know it was a response to the demands of the kinds of work and the particular workplace that the industrial economy of the 1800s spawned.

For at least the last century, jobs have been the building blocks of our understanding of society—the basis of a meaningful, purposeful, and stable life. We have been socialized to think in terms of “having a job.” As the modern, industrial economy declines, conditions that formed our earlier notions of work are changing along with the nature, or even existence, of the job. When people are asked when they will “get a real job,” it is likely they are working some kind of piecemeal arrangement cobbled together to sustain them, at least temporarily. The sentiment behind the comment reflects the bias of our society as to what constitutes a good job: a good job is one that “makes you somebody.” Interestingly, however, the arrangement to which this derisive comment is directed more closely reflects the reality of today’s world of work than it does the outdated, idealized image to which today’s world is being compared.

It is indicative of our times that one of the country’s largest private employers is not a giant of industry. It is neither from the old industrial order based on resource extraction and materials refinement nor born of today’s high technology. Rather, this giant stands as a business that makes nothing and has no plants. It is in the booming business of selling discrete packets of labor. With well over a half-million workers by the early 1990s, Manpower Inc. became one of America’s largest employers and the world’s largest temporary employment agency.

Since that time, Manpower has continued to flourish as America’s traditional giants continue to cut people from their own workforce. Today the Milwaukee-based company has more than forty-three hundred offices in seventy-two countries. To many, the country appears to be increasingly one made up of part-timers, freelancers, temps, and independent contractors, all of whom are part of a new “disposable” workforce. In 1993, the total number of temps (1.5 million) was already three times as large as it was just ten years earlier. One in every three workers in the United States had already become a member of what has been called the “contingent workforce.”

The term “contingent work” was coined by Audrey Freedman, an economist who had worked for both Manpower and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to describe “conditional and transitory employment arrangements as initiated by a need for labor—usually because a company has an increased demand for a particular service or a product or technology, at a particular place, at a particular time.” Freedman’s use in 1998 of the term “contingent workforce,” before the Employment and Housing Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations of the U.S. House of Representatives, was meant to describe a management technique of employing workers only when there was an immediate and direct need for specific work to be done. The term has since been applied more widely to a range of employment practices that includes part-time work, contracted or outsourced workers, home-based work, and even self-employment. For some, the term applies to nearly any arrangement that deviates from the standard model of a full-time wage or salaried job.

In contrast to the idealized worker of the regular, industrialized world of last century, workers today are asked to be multitasking, adaptable, and forever learning. That is what it means to be part of the “just-in-time” business model—only now as the human resource equivalent to that developed for commodity inventory. It is about being conditional. When companies moved to just-in-time manufacturing during the 1980s, it was only a short step to apply this to workers. Employers today increasingly want what are variously referred to as “portfolio workers,” “career gypsies,” “project workers,” “temps,” and “task consultants” to do specific but transitional jobs. This is not the kind of long-term system on which workers relied for much of the twentieth century for the stability and sense of control necessary to build up a personally meaningful narrative of self through work. Today’s workers increasingly do not have the relative security and protection provided by a lastingly defined job description.

A lifestyle migrant who gave up a high-status position in a major corporation, Alan recognized the importance of work in shaping a life and decided to embrace the fact, taking the chance to completely redefine his work and life through leaving a corporate job and relocating to Traverse City.

"Nowadays, you’ve got to put together your own life. So many times in the past when I decided to look for new jobs they were pretty specific. The objective was to keep the unions out and keep the morale up and we have to reduce the workforce. And the guy who was running the Midwest division picked me up, and he said, 'I want a guy like you. I don’t want a team player. I’ve got this problem . . .' And I remember, they said, 'We don’t care if you fire everybody because in nine months we’re going to close the plant. Including the plant manager, but we’ll keep you if we like you.' And nine months later, I was the only one kept."

Alan’s work as a kind of corporate hit man, a hired gun, is iconic of the just-in-time workforce. His work was both shaped by and gave shape to the contingent workforce of the flexible economy. “They said raise hell with the unions. We had three walkouts, and every time I had the factory running again in fifteen minutes because I just went into the offices and said, ‘Come on, we’re going to run this thing.’ I would have the [machines] making noise and stuff . . . and it got the union scared that we were going to run it without them. I would bring in temporary labor services. I was doing everything. It took them two years to clean up all the arbitrations I started. That’s what I was hired to do.” We came into the 1990s with a recession where jobless rates were up, and we came into the next century within another downturn. With the coming of the Great Recession in late 2007, we saw tremendous job loss. Although we can dwell on the numbers of the latest economic bloodbath, the real story is not in the loss of jobs in quantitative terms, but ratherthe loss of the job itself. It is not a question of “jobs” simply but rather of the “Job” itself—job with a capital J. Like many lifestyle migrants, Alan knew this was happening. In his case, he was neck deep in the process.

The practice of defining oneself through the performance of a specific job and through association with a particular company was the model of my father’s generation. Now there is neither a guarantee nor an expectation of the durability of such a definition because the world of work on which it is based is unstable and unpredictable, more fluid and boundless. Valued workers today are expected to exhibit these qualities. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. Oh yeah, by the way, Olds didn’t make it in the new economy. The nearly hundred-year-old company, based in Lansing, Michigan, that Mike—the corporate refugee turned pie maker—had shunned, despite strong local tradition, for sunny California as a newly minted college graduate, was axed by its parent company, General Motors, in early 2001. Its apparent demise seems tied to the all-important issues of branding and image. People apparently couldn’t let go of the old-geezer image of Olds, and so another giant of the old economy bit the dust.

Though the changes in work are widespread and profound, in the past decade the category of the job in common usage is only gradually shifting in meaning. The meaning that is emerging is much closer to the idea common before industrialization of people doing certain tasks as jobs rather than “having them.” In yesterday’s job paradigm, people were located at a particular level in a vertical hierarchy. They were also located horizontally in a functional unit responsible for some particular set of tasks. People were given a well-defined area of responsibility, which was formalized in a job description. Accordingly, people could see a fairly straight “career path”—as was the common notion—that they could aspire to follow, ladder-like, toward greater financial reward and status. While perhaps stifling, there was order and predictability in this arrangement.

Although this kind of set path—more common a generation ago—has become outmoded, in the immediate post-WWII years it was being strongly reinforced. As noted earlier, this was a boom time both in terms of economic and population growth. For nearly twenty solid years there was a sense that this growth was unlimited and required only sufficient labor to sustain it. Through the beginning of the 1970s, government and corporations could hardly find enough qualified people to fill managerial positions within a burgeoning economy. During the period, the economy grew at a comfortable average of over 3 percent annually while real earnings expanded, growing over 60 percent in the first ten years and nearly 50 percent over the following decade.

Workers needed little in the way of the pep talks and sessions on reinventing themselves that would become part of the climate of economic restructuring that characterized the 1980s. In the prosperous years following the war, there was substantial security in bringing home a steady paycheck from the same company week after week. There was security as well in knowing what it was that you would be doing for years down the road. Opportunity for advancement was available to those who demonstrated ambition and capability by devoting themselves more fully and completely and by putting in longer, more demanding hours.

As the Baby Boom generation grew and went on to earn advanced degrees to an extent previously unknown, a workforce emerged that was both highly educated and comparatively large in number to the preceding generation. With the economic downturn and recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, however, later Baby Boomers entered a job market where the story of their parents’ generation had shifted from one of relative plenty for the loyal and dedicated worker to one of anxious competition and uncertainty. While the number of potential positions shrank, the numbers of highly qualified applicants had grown dramatically. People had to work not only harder to get in the game, but even harder to stay in it. This has been appropriately called “manic capitalism” by the medical anthropologist Emily Martin, whose work has shown that mania may be examined as a cultural phenomenon that plays a role in contemporary society including as inspiration for a robust capitalism as a potentially creative, driving force for successful entrepreneurs.

While the struggle required in order to stay on that tenuous path of career had increased in the 1970s, so too did the tenacity of the professional to follow it onward and upward by scrambling up rungs of the corporate hierarchy and tenaciously clinging to an increasingly less relevant model. Movement “upward” with the financial reward and the status this conferred continued to largely define personal success. In order to achieve this success, one had to demonstrate the desire to advance in a clearly quantifiable way. This was all the more necessary now that the onus was so much more on the individual to achieve and prove worth. If there was a sense of getting something for next to nothing before, there was a sense now that only the fit would survive. But having molded and adapted themselves to the way of this world of work, people still believed in the career—in following a discrete path of jobs seamlessly connected by upward mobility. The climb was harder and might require greater competition with peers, but the way was still there.

Given the reality of the shifting economy it is frankly surprising how workers have hung on to a model that no longer represents actual structural conditions. But devotion to a compelling model of work and its standard definition of success—as to any system of beliefs—effectively frees the individual from having to question the status quo. So long as people believed that the system could deliver and they worked hard enough to prove themselves through their devotion, they were free from having to face the existential angst of feeling the ground drop out from under them. It is not at all surprising that an emphasis on “self-help” blossomed in the New Age phenomenon of the 1980s. While New Age is normally relegated to the realm of “alternative” approaches, its message of self-help was a basic part of the emergence of a “personal excellence” movement and what Amy Saltzman has called “evangelical entrepreneurialism.”

When people felt in danger of losing their footing on shaky economic ground, they could explore the reasons why they were not being productive enough, they could work on their time management and communication skills, on boosting their self-esteem, on trying to deal with their growing anxiety by embracing it and putting it to work for them. All of this while largely ignoring the voice that begged to question what was being asked of them as workers: to place their jobs before all else and to work with little expectation that there would be a job with the company down the road. Corporations realized that they could maximize worker efficiency by actively promoting the idea that career fulfillment was equivalent to personal fulfillment. Simultaneous with the demise of career as it was known for several generations, many older, larger corporations were working to eliminate tens of thousands of jobs at the same time that they exploited the individual drive to succeed by encouraging workers to put their professional lives before their personal ones. As a new economy took shape, novel communities of work emerged in places, like Silicon Valley, that centered on young companies with often quite young people at their helms. The leaders of these emergent communities, the movers and shakers, preached a kind of personal salvation through self-actualization in performing one’s work. The masses of Baby Boomers, driven, highly educated, ready to strike it big, and keenly aware of the need to stand out and survive in an increasingly competitive workplace, were easily converted. These newfangled communities of work became a possible source of guidance at a time when traditional sources of meaning were declining in their capacity to influence and thus in their relative importance in people’s everyday lives.

Numerous lifestyle migrants have described how they adhered to a system of beliefs, as they participated in work, with nearly religious qualities. For many, answers to historically religious questions could be sought in wholly secular activities and attachments as found in the workplace—including such basic questions as “Who am I?” and “Where is my life going?” People found meaning and purpose in work in a way that became practically religious in nature. Examples of devotion, even in today’s increasingly suspicious atmosphere between workers and employers, were not uncommon.

Jim, a middle-aged lifestyle migrant who experienced a brutal and personally motivated layoff from a small but highly successful software company in southeastern Michigan began to share his compelling story with me over lunch. As his touring motorcycle was being worked on at a busy shop off a rural highway south of Traverse City, we met in a smoky roadside diner, whose décor, dark with its scant windows and stained paneling, suggested it had not seen remodeling since the 1970s. As we munched on our salads, he explained that at the time he worked for this company, his relationship to work was like that of a cult member: “I had been drinking the Kool-Aid. It was like the Jim Jones gang [a reference to what most people characterize as a cult]. I was drinking the corporate Kool-Aid [and] believing that this was the way. I mean, believing that this work was the way to an honorable life.”

Given the necessity for believing in “the way,” what amounts to a kind of dependency or forced addiction appears to have developed: “At a certain point in the corporation, you change your worth. You trade in your career capital to benefit the company. You’re worth more to the company that you’ve been working for than you are on the street. You get up to here [he raises his fork to eye level before me], but if you were to go looking for another job you don’t start there. That’s just the way it works. I think that corporate America takes advantage of that. It’s the ‘golden handcuffs.’ And you have to have faith.” In similar fashion, an unmarried woman in her mid-thirties speaks of her experience in a software firm in Silicon Valley. Although Susan grew up in the Midwest, it was the West that—as with Mike—beckoned when in her early twenties she sought to find her working life and was drawn to the exciting industries of the tech boom in California, which promised not only financial reward but an elusive “something more” out of work. She felt strongly that the work she was doing was meaningful and she believed in the mission. Speaking to this, Susan said, “The company I worked for [was] in the throes of what’s been going on the last ten years in Silicon Valley. It’s pretty crazy. It’s really exciting, high-energy . . . working hard, making a difference. We were doing GIS, geographic information system, software. All over the world it was being used for really incredible things and the application part of it was fun and important.”

There came a point, however, when her faith shifted from beneath her as corporate profit seeking caused a divergence from the values that initially guided development of the company and attracted ideologically driven workers like her. Her context swings as the workplace is turned upside down by new priorities and economic imperatives. Susan enters a period of personal crisis and moral uncertainty that culminates in what can easily be characterized as a quest for more personally defined meaning outside the world of work. “All of the sudden, we bought a company bigger than we were and we are trying to go public, and there was all this politics involved. All of a sudden it’s all about money and not the application. We were a bunch of young, you know, twenty-eight, thirty-year-olds . . . even the president of the company—the person that started it. I was asked to set up the whole inside sales team while we were trying to merge with this other company which had an outside sales force team, and it got really ugly.” This is a point where the believer’s conviction in “the Company” and its mission is severely tested. There is a crisis; here it is explicitly one of faith that leads to a kind of break and the eventual quest for new ways of finding meaning.

The idea that work might be used to provide a way toward finding greater fulfillment is not new. It was established in a fundamentally religious context during the Reformation with deep roots in the Protestant ethic of work. Luther said that one might live acceptably before God by devotion to one’s secular “calling” as God’s will. It was on this basic notion that the ethic of self-discipline, duty, asceticism, and a basic concern with achievement and personal betterment through work would be based. The true believer would come to have the conviction that work was worthwhile in its own right as an indirect way of rendering service to God and by developing one’s own moral character. In the end, work would become the very core of moral life and thus—as the philosopher Charles Taylor suggests—a way of finding orientation in the world.

As the nature of work has been reformulated over time, so too has the work ethic. During the post-WWII period in America, the emphasis was one of delayed gratification fulfilled in the form of material things. In the short term, it becomes what the architect and social critic WitoldRybczynski called a routinized “living for the weekend.” It became a matter of working in order to achieve the time to devote to other things in the form of leisure activities—a point that takes us back to my earlier discussion of the rise of consumption over production activities as a source of meaning. In the long term, it is a promise of future reward through promotions and a sequentially higher standard of living together with the respect and admiration of one’s peers and eventually a sponsored retirement. While severely eroded by the changes wrought by postindustrial economic restructuring and globalization, this view of the “giving-getting compact” persists in a kind of “structural lag” as the essential core of what we continue to understand as the American Dream.

The late 1980s and early 1990s was a critical time for the meaning of work in American society. During this period, we find two parallel processes. One leads toward an even greater devotion to work while the other begins pushing people to question underlying assumptions of a system of delayed gratification. Both are responses to new realities of economic restructuring and deepening social changes. Those workers continuing to believe in and pursue an upward path of climbing the ladder toward greater fulfillment and reward embody what could be called the emergent personal work ethic. As in the Protestant work ethic, there is devotion, but the dedication here is to one’s own work rather than to the workplace or company. It is making an investment in “Me, Inc.” as the free agents to which I have previously referred.

We saw this strategic self-interest in Mike’s account of his attitude toward working for the old “Company” as he planned to set out on his own as a small business owner. Acquiring the knowledge and skills to stay alive and keep moving as the entire world of work shifts is the reward. Although loyalty is practically irrelevant, devotion remains the key to reward, only now that commitment is to oneself and the reward must be crafted under conditions where the individual is totally responsible for either achieving or failing to reach it. Workers are increasingly working without a safety net, or at least, work with a net of their own making. Today’s 401K retirement plans, while offering greater flexibility and portability, are the employee’s responsibility. We are entering a world where the preponderance of accountability for risk-related decisions such as concerning finances, insurance, and privacy will be shifted to the individual as companies as well as state and federal government agencies reign in support services and benefits as a means of cutting costs.

Reprinted with permission from Opting for Elsewhere: Lifestyle Migration in the American Middle Class by Brian A. Hoey and published by Vanderbilt University Press, 2014.