Finding meaning in work (if you can get it)

George and Ira Gershwin taught us that falling in love is  “nice work if you can get it / And you can get it if you try.” Creators of romantic musical theater are notably optimistic — too few people get love just by trying. However, trying to get love is often pleasurable in itself, even though it’s also often anguishing. As far as I know, there’s hardly any pleasure in looking for any job.

It would be nice if landing a job portended a pleasant future, but, according to Barry Schwartz[1] and the research he cites, working is usually disagreeable. The first citation Schwartz offers is from a 2014 Gallup survey that shows that “almost 90 percent of workers were either ‘not engaged’ with or ‘actively disengaged’ from their jobs.” He goes on:

Think about that: Nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.

This jibes with my earlier post, Intense workplace culture, but it has a different focus: Some workplaces (notably online businesses such as Amazon and Facebook) are strenuous or “intense” because the culture valorizes – even demands – long hours and intense pressure. This, they think, is how to succeed.

In contrast, Schwartz is talking about common, everyday, non-glamorous jobs — in short, most jobs, the ones that are generally experienced as meaningless.

As in the “intense” post, there’s reason to believe that the sense of meaningless nurtured by workplace culture in general can be attributed by ignorance as well as the Puritanical[2] belief that people don’t want to work and they will not work productively or efficiently unless they are forced to do so — that labor, in line with its Latin root (labor “toil, trouble”) is inherently unpleasant. Schwartz debunks this attitude several times, including a passage on “the Stanford organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.”

In his 1998 book, The Human Equation, which reviewed numerous studies across dozens of different industries, . . . [Pfeffer] found that workplaces that offered employees work that was challenging, engaging and meaningful, and over which they had some discretion, were more profitable than workplaces that treated employees as cogs in a production machine.

It seems that the evidence shows that in many areas employers and businesses could relatively easily increase profit while improving workers’ satisfaction. It may not be ethically required to do so, but it would clearly be ethically praiseworthy.

Ignorance is not usually considered to be unethical, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful

Ken Pimple
September 5, 2015
6:00 pm EDT


[1] Schwartz, Barry. 2015. “Rethinking work.” New York Times (August 28 online; in print in the New York edition on August 30, page SR1). (verified September 5, 2015).

[2] Schwartz blames this attitude on Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations and doesn’t mention the Puritans. I don’t know that my attribution is sound — but it does fit with the popular image of them.

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Ken Pimple

About Ken Pimple

I've been involved in the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics before its actual creation. I am coordinating the international conversation on the future of practical and professional ethics for APPE, and organizing five workshops that will be held at Indiana University in Bloomington in academic year 2014-15.

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