Making Meaning a Real Part of Economic Discussions

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Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz is right to point out that we don’t put enough emphasis on an important aspect of our working lives:

A job’s meaningfulness — a sense that the work has a broader purpose — is consistently and overwhelmingly ranked by employees as one of the most important factors driving job satisfaction. It’s the linchpin of qualities that make a valuable employee: motivation, job performance and a desire to show up and stay.

About the closest one gets to this conversation comes when, as part of political debates about living wages and mandatory benefits, some religious leader adds the phrase “meaningful work” to the list of workers’ rights.

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Although she didn’t go so far as to raise the prospect of government action, Elejalde-Ruiz’s article does emphasize that employers are doing something they shouldn’t when they don’t give meaning to their employees’ jobs, not unlike the presumptuous statements that RI employers are cheating themselves by not offering sick time.  Perhaps she backs away because talk of meaning begins to illustrate how little ground one can actually cover when insisting on assigning people to categories (boss versus worker) and trying to resolve perceived problems categorically.

Blanket rules won’t help employers make employees’ jobs more meaningful, just as one can’t force the employees to take a deliberate approach to seeking meaning.  These questions are bound up with individual worldview and personal interactions.

What we can do is to stop oversimplifying our lives for the sake of political tugs-of-war.  Consider how easily the notion of meaningful work can flip:  Human beings will be attracted to work that is meaningful, which means they’ll tend to work for less pay.  Conversely, employers have to pay more to attract employees when the work isn’t attractive in its own right.  Put that way, it’s simply inappropriate to make declarations about, say, low pay for teachers without also commenting on how much they’re paid in meaning, so to speak.

Indeed, an interesting study could probably be made of gender gaps in these terms.  What if the longstanding cultural expectation that men would provide for their families left them with a meaningfulness deficit?  That could certainly play into suicide rates.



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