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.

| February 2015

  • 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
  • stress at work
    Many people get trapped in unsatisfying jobs, and forsake their health and happiness for perceived stability.
    Photo by Fotolia/cartoonresource

  • Opting for Elsewhere
  • stress at work

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.

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