Why We Need Meaningful Work, Not Jobs

Imagine a world where pursuing our passions pays the bills


| January-February 1999



The alarm clock explodes with a high-pitched screech. It's 6:30 a.m.—another dreaded Monday. Kids need to be dressed, fed, rushed off to school. Then there's 40 minutes of fighting traffic and the sprint from the parking lot to your workstation. You arrive, breathless, just in the nick of time. Now is the moment to confront the week ahead. As usual, you're in overload mode. You seem to be working faster and faster but falling farther behind. What's worse, your unforgiving bosses think everything gets accomplished by magic. But you don't dare do or say anything that might jeopardize your job. (It hurts just to think of those swelling credit card balances.) At the end of the day, when you are drained and dragged out, it's time to endure the long drive home, get dinner ready, and maybe steal a few hours in front of the TV. Then to sleep, and it starts all over again.

Sound familiar? Despite utopian visions earlier in this century of technology freeing us all from the toil of work, we are now working harder than ever—with little relief in sight. In a recent poll, 88 percent of workers said their jobs require them to work longer (up from 70 percent 20 years ago), and 68 percent complained of having to work at greater speeds (up from 50 percent in 1977). And as if all this were not grim enough, the most discouraging aspect of our jobs is that they seem to accomplish little of lasting value. Studies consistently show that as many as 80 percent of workers in our society feel their jobs, however fast and furious, are "meaningless."

It is a disturbing picture. The "land of opportunity" is fast becoming a nation of stressed-out wage slaves. Yet no one in the American political arena, on the left or on the right, seems to notice what our jobs are doing to us. Everyone from the president on down declares that creating more new jobs is our most important goal. Left unspoken are the physical and mental suffering, the powerlessness and meaninglessness, that will be endemic to so many of these "new," often low-paying jobs.

Certainly, a low unemployment rate is not a bad thing, especially for the poor and poorly skilled among us. But more jobs isn't a panacea for our problems. We must pay more attention to the kind and quality of work at which we spend our days, our weeks, our lives. It's not just about jobs, or even well-paying jobs. It's about meaningful work. Economists, politicians, union leaders, employers, activists, the media—everyone needs to help create a new vision of how we earn our livelihoods. We need work that is good for body, mind, and spirit; work that sustains family and community; work that connects us with and helps us protect the natural world.

Re-envisioning Work 

An important starting point for any effort to re-envision work is to remember that there is nothing natural or preordained about our modern system of jobs. For most of human history, people worked far differently than we do, usually right at home in the midst of family, community, and nature. Work wasn't separated from the rest of their lives; it wasn't an uninterrupted eight-hour stretch of duty. Many traditional cultures don't even have a word for work, much less wage-based jobs. Indeed, the word job in English originally meant a criminal or demeaning action. (We retain this meaning when we call a bank robbery a "bank job.") After the industrial revolution took hold in 18th-century England, the first generations of factory workers felt that wage work was humiliating and undignified. Angry about being driven from their traditional work on the land or in crafts, they applied the word job to factory labor as a way of expressing their disgust.