How meaningful is your work?

May 25, 2008

IT people often complain about what they do – the long hours sometimes, the pointlessness of corporate America (or whatever country, fill in the blank _______), the fear of losing their job to outsourcing, the loss of creativity in the job due to ‘process’ and pointy-headed management, the struggle to keep up with the state of the art or buzz in their profession. Often IT people look to get out, either voluntarily, or as would usually be the case, involuntary through layoffs or lack of work due to economic downturns or technological obsolesence. Even with a steady job, that is often highly paid (there has been stagnation or decline in some aspects of the industry), people lack meaning in what they do.

I thought a lot of the issue is due to relativism. It is said that people who live in rural villages in Third World countries are often happier than upper middle class ‘moderns’ in the US or the UK. They are far poorer in material terms, suffer more from disease and deprevation. But within the context of their belief system, the bonds of community and family and spirituality, they are more content. Maybe it’s that they don’t have time or the inclination think about how meaningless their lives are. If their lives are actually meaningless, if our lives are meaningless.

The articles "The best way to find meaning at work? Don’t look for it " and "Aim low to find meaning at work " (public access??) are from Lucy Kellaway, self described agony aunt (Britishism for advice columist) and financial columnist with the Financial Times who I’ve enjoyed reading (when I’ve had ready access to copies of the FT). She writes about, among other things, people, people with very high financial compensation from their work, who are increasingly finding their jobs meaningless. She says, get a grip.

As an agony aunt, I am used to people telling me that their jobs are meaningless. In fact this, is the most popular problem that readers submit. Lawyers, bankers, fund managers and all sorts of people with grand jobs write in with the same complaint: the money may be good but where is the meaning? How can I make a difference, they wail.

In fact, whoever coined the phrase “making a difference” has made a difference, though not a positive one. The phrase gestures towards grandiose achievement that is out of reach for almost everybody. Most of us make very little difference at all – which stands to reason if you think there are 30m workers in Britain alone, making it almost impossible that any of us will make a difference, except to the people we work directly with.

In fact as long as we set our sights low enough we all do make a difference at work. By performing the tasks we are supposed to perform, we are making a difference to our employers. If we weren’t, they would have fired us long ago.

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