Meaning in Work
People work because they want to keep living. Most of us have a preference to keep living, especially given that the alternative is largely unknowable. Or when we think we know it, we tend to make not-living sound not-great. Though there exists another demand from work that we place on it, aside from the need to create (or purchase) food and shelter. We want our work to be “meaningful”.
I imagine, considering human history at large, that this is quite a new demand. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did their work to immediately and directly facilitate access to their conditions of continued living. Meanwhile, I have yet to participate in a job interview where it was explicitly understood between myself and my potential employer that, in addition to finding “meaning”, I’m also looking to be able to live.
If this question of living was made more explicit, would my job interviews become more or less interesting than they’ve already been? Perhaps less interesting in the sense that no recruiters would ever ask me again to describe my personality to them and how it matches the expressed values of the particular company I’m applying for. Certainly, I’d have to spend a lot less time looking at the glossy sheen of websites designed to make me want to believe in such values, or at least would no longer have to express a belief in them in order to facilitate my conditions of living. I suppose this is partially due to the type of work I’m looking for. Before I went corporate, the application form to clean dorm-rooms at my alma mater certainly didn’t ask about my “values” (though nearly everybody who worked over the spring to clean dorm-rooms was exceptionally earnest, even if we had to grind so much, the money helped carry us places).
In my dream state, interviewers ask me about my living. The questions of meaning necessarily become tied to how work lets us live. We would talk about how it’s no coincidence that so many writers end up as socialists given how poorly they tend to be paid. We would talk about how the whole set-up between us, to determine my “fit” for their company, might be a particularly clever mechanism to motivate me to work for them beyond my need to live, because of how deeply I believe in their values. And then, at the end of it, I might have a better answer for them for what I really do believe in. Or what I think they should believe in.
I am idle. Labor makes me cynical. But not because I don’t want to do it. Like most people, I want to continue living. Labor makes me cynical because to have conversations about its meaning without tying those questions to our living keeps us away from ourselves. Our values become tied to some abstract notion of work, rather than thinking about the possibilities of how work can help us fulfill our values. There’s so many things worth doing in the world that are yet to be done, so much work that can make our living more interesting than it has been before. I am being vague. I am arguing from intuition. I am afraid that this process cannot be quite calculated in hours per week. Nonetheless, it is work, or at least something similar.