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Work and Meaning »

I have written extensively of the importance of our spiritual needs and the necessity of humans to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Traditionally many of us found meaning and purpose in our lives through our religion, our family or our contribution to the community. But such institutions are now in decline. We have become a far more secular society. The traditional nuclear family is far less common and our familial allegiance not as strong as they once were. We now have declining confidence in the State and those that represent us.

It is not surprising then that, in the face of such decline, many of us are seeking to find fulfilment from our work.

In his book, What Makes Us Tick, social researcher, Hugh Mackay, outlines what he believes are the ten desires that drive us, as human beings. They are:

  • The desire to be taken seriously,
  • The desire for ‘my place’,
  • The desire for something to believe in,
  • The desire to connect,
  • The desire to be useful,
  • The desire to belong,
  • The desire for more,
  • The desire for control,
  • The desire for something to happen, and
  • The desire for love.

Without elaborating on those desires too deeply, it is not hard to see that most of them can be satisfied at work, by gainful employment.

Obviously work satisfies the desire to be useful, the desire to be taken seriously, the desire to belong, the desire for ‘my place’, the desire for something to happen, the desire to connect, (and sometimes the desire for something to believe in, the desire for control, the desire for more and even the desire for love).

Is it any wonder then that work is so important to many of us?

I have argued elsewhere that the very best organisations have a social purpose which is more than just about making money. There was a lot of literature in the 1980’s and 1990’s to support this thesis. (To learn more read my previous essays on meaningful work that can be accessed in the archives on my blog site.) But it is not surprising that people want to work for organisations that want to make a positive difference to society and are generally more committed and productive when working for such organisations.

Good leaders need to be able to make such connections for their employees and how the organisation’s success provides such community benefits.

But if employment can be so beneficial it is obvious that having no meaningful employment imposes a huge burden on those so afflicted. There are three major categories of such people:

  • Those without gainful employment because of economic conditions resulting in high rates of unemployment;
  • Those who, because of age, have retired from full-time paid employment; and
  • Those who have been enculturated with the belief that work should be avoided.

A generation ago, the nature of work was considerably different from what it is today. To begin with industry was much more labour intensive. Many unskilled people, particularly men, found it easy enough to gain employment doing physical but menial tasks. But technology has continuously eroded those opportunities. The lifting, carrying and digging that was once predominantly carried out manually in many workplaces are now routinely performed by machines. The low skilled repetitive work carried out by those on production lines have routinely been automated. Even the fabrication work we once relied on tradestaff to perform in manufacturing is now routinely done by robotics. Consequently unskilled men are now disproportionately represented among our long term unemployed.

Unfortunately in a world of identity politics, the most important identifier of who we are is often our employment. When you are introduced to someone it doesn’t seem to take long before you are asked, “What do you do?” So unemployment often not only removes a sense of meaning and purpose from our lives, but for many even impinges on their sense of identity.

Those who have retired from work often face a similar conundrum. They largely define themselves by what they used to do. What’s more, unless they have been careful to manage the process well, devoid of work they could find their existence rather meaningless. Those who do best have hobbies that strongly engage them, charity work to which they are committed, or expanded family duties (often involving grandchildren) to occupy them.

Thirty years ago, I remember reading a study of bank managers. Those, who after a busy working life retired without proper preparation, had far shorter life expectancy then those who transitioned to retirement more slowly and built a solid platform of post work interests.

In Asian countries, where age and wisdom are more greatly valued than in Western society, many firms keep their aging executives on in part-time advisory roles, which gives the person something useful to do and preserves their sense of self-worth.

But in the scale of things, the loss of employment through age is likely to be less traumatic than the loss of employment through redundancy caused by technology advances or other industry disruptions. Often the problem is exacerbated by the displaced person hanging on to the identity that his employment once provided him.

I first read of this problem many years ago. The case, as I recall it, was the closure of a Scottish shipyard. A case study examining the effects of this traumatic event highlighted the fate of a skilled machinist. He had so taken on the identity of that calling he could not bring himself to look at other opportunities of employment, even though in the area where he was prepared to work it was unlikely that such an opportunity would again eventuate. It was beyond his imagination to believe he was anything but a machinist.

In my writings about the workplace over these last thirty or more years, I have emphasised that seeking secure employment can be a false goal for employees. A person manufactures employment security by working on their employability – having skills that are in demand and attitudes that make them attractive to employers. It is a fatal mistake to acquire a qualification in your youth and expect it to provide you with secure employment for the rest of your working life. Workers need to accept the fact that if they are to maximise their job opportunities they will need to train and retrain throughout their working lives. (It is interesting that the literature on workplace change suggests that one of the major fears for older workers in a change environment is the unfounded concern that they will not have the capacity to learn new skills.)

But there are other categories of Australians that seem destined not to find the fulfilment that meaningful work can bring.

For a considerable time I was a director on the board of the Beacon Foundation. Beacon does fabulous work in trying to resolve youth unemployment. But in their endeavours to place young people in work they found a major cultural impediment. Often these unemployed youth came from families where no one had been employed for two or three generations. In contrast to my thesis that work is beneficial to most people, these young people came from a culture where work was an anathema and something to be avoided at all costs. They had succumbed to a culture that contrived to exploit welfare and as a result of their family histories were very well-credentialed to do so.

We know also that generational unemployment is also an issue in remote indigenous communities. There is no employment in these communities simply because there is no economy.

The tragedy we face is that, if indeed work is for most a major source of meaning in their lives, those young people who face such generational unemployment have no role models to demonstrate the potency of this fact. Consequently the vacuum in their lives that such an absence creates, is filled by substance abuse, petty crime and violence.

High rates of unemployment arising from stagnant economic growth can be soul-destroying for those immediately impacted. Whilst it may be true that there are many unemployed people who “game” the system taking advantage of our generous welfare provisions, the tragedy is that there are probably many more who want to be employed but have neither the opportunities nor the skills to turn their desires into reality.

Our standard of living has been improved immensely by the application of technology in our industries. But this has often come with a human cost. Recent economic conditions have exacerbated the plight of the unemployed. Although our union movement would probably argue otherwise, Australia is high wage country. With interest rates at historically low levels, capital investment in artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, presents attractive returns in these circumstances which will in turn displace more labour.

We need to develop more innovative approaches to employment, not necessarily because in a capitalist society employment is the principal mechanism for wealth creation and distribution, but because meaningful employment enhances our humanity.