Why we work: The crisis of meaning in the modern workplace

(Source: Wall Street Journal https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704476104575439723695579664)

Ask any 10-year old what they wish to be when they “grow up” and you get dreams of becoming an astronaut, firefighter, or a journalist. One would be hard-pressed to imagine children mouthing off careers in “change management”, strategy consulting, or supply chain logistics. Yet, many begin their careers in highly specialized fields that often bring high rates of financial return. In LSE alone, according to employment statistics of postgraduates, a little over twenty percent of students end up in careers in investment banking, finance and consultancy within the first six-months after graduation.[1]

That’s a big deal.

Yet, when asked whether [enter highly lucrative career] is something they’d want to be doing for the rest of their lives, the answer rarely is a ‘yes’. Dig a little further and you unearth those same youthful aspirations to become a marine conservationist, art exhibitor, or aid worker.

 

Why is this often the case?

Driven largely by extrinsic motivators (money), in “economic-speak”, markets have incentivized labor to highly specialized positions but failed in its ability to organize it to its most optimal social utility. In other words, people are often left unfulfilled in their jobs, generating a crisis of meaning in the modern workplace.

Specialization of jobs stems from the industrial revolution where tasks were broken up into additive parts and later perfected in practices of Fordism and modern management theory (e.g. assembly line production). This has brought us appetizing careers in PP&L Management, Vendor Managed Inventory Coordination, and A/V Engineering Product Portfolio Management. Far too often, many are left feeling like a small clog in a large machine and often don’t see the fulfillment jobs used to bring. For instance, a baker in the 15th century would have been fulfilled by the satisfaction seen in his neighbor enjoying the bread baked in the morning just as inn-keepers enjoying the merriment of their customers at the tavern.

The Baker, Job Berckheyde (1861)

 

Careers in the modern workplace are often too far-removed from the end product to generate much inherent meaning and fulfillment. For instance, it would take several steps up the value chain for an operator at a parcel logistics company to realize the benefit of seeing a child receiving a gift from his grandmother for Christmas. Additionally, notions of a career as a “calling” or a “vocation” place high expectations for fulfillment and satisfaction out of their careers-in some ways, serving as a big part of one’s identity (how often do we begin our conversations by being asked, “so..what do you do”?). It is, therefore, unsurprising to see the growing use of terms like “mid-life” and “quarter-life” crises in the modern lexicon when expectation fails to meet the inevitable reality.

So, what can be done?

In an effort to better understand people’s motivations and decision-making processes, Nava Ashraf, of LSE’s Marshall Institute pioneered the concept of “Altruistic Capital”. It, defined, “is the idea that every individual has with them an intrinsic desire to serve”.[2]  Just as capital, in economics, can be in the form of financial capital and human capital, she argues that there’s an incentive for altruistic capital where people are motivated by a desire to help others. Some of the findings in her research has shown, at times, those with non-financial incentives out-perform those with monetary incentives.[3] Reflecting on this topic, writer and philosopher Alain de Botton posits that helping others doesn’t always mean “becoming a doctor, a nurse, or saving the developing world.. it could mean removing a squeak in a door or uniting someone with a lost luggage.[4] Doing good doesn’t always have to be big.

By changing the way incentive structures are built in the workplace, businesses can try to re-orient themselves to motivate people by their desire to see the impact of their work. This could be in the form of management articulating narratives of individual impact, integrating trips out to the field, or perhaps changing the business model altogether to ensure social impact is a core component of their mission. There’s evidence to suggest companies have already started doing this. In Mercadona and Costco, for an example, staff are cross-trained across multiple different positions (e.g. cash registers, stock shelves, management, developing promotions).[5] Under the emerging M.O. of “employee engagement” more and more organizations are seriously thinking through this challenge.

Thinking bigger, what if markets were driven less by financial incentives and more by altruistic impact? Consumer preferences have begun to shift in favor of products/services that bring generative social impact over ones that’ve focus on minimizing costs (e.g. the rising demand for sustainable food sources & the decline of consumer taste for McDonalds) to demonstrate this.[6] [7] Extending this concept, what would investment banking, or perhaps, chemical companies look like based on accumulating altruistic capital along with financial motives? The list goes on.

There’s still a lot more work to do and the “crisis” isn’t unique to the private sector. Public sector institutions and non-profits often, too, face this challenge with either layers of labyrinthine bureaucracies (Government) or lack of internal engagement[8] (non-profit).

Finding meaning in our work is a conversation waiting to be had. The fields of economics, behavioral science, and social policy can nudge us to change the way we think of work, our motivations, and our values. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietchze eloquently noted, “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how[9]


Andrew Park is a first year MPA student, originally from the United States. Previously, he worked at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on Global Health and Digital Development projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He holds a degree in International Studies from the University of California, Irvine.

[1] (14.5% to Investment Banking & Finance, 8.8% to Consultancy) https://info.lse.ac.uk/current-students/careers/what-graduates-do

[2] https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/altruistic-capital-harnessing-your-employees-intrinsic-goodwill#

[3]https://www.povertyactionlab.org/sites/default/files/publications/205_216%20No%20Margin%20No%20Mission%20Dec2014.pdf

[4] https://youtu.be/FjD6_dcHKp8?t=5m45s

[5] https://dupress.deloitte.com/content/dam/dup-us-en/articles/employee-engagement-strategies/DR16_irresistibleorganization.jpg

[6] https://www.msc.org/documents/environmental-benefits/global-impacts/msc-global-impacts-report-2017

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jul/26/mcdonalds-revenue-falls-second-quarter-2016

[8] https://ssir.org/articles/entry/five_myths_that_perpetuate_burnout_across_nonprofits

[9] Friedrich Nietchze, Twilight of the Arrows, Maxims & Arrows #12, 1889

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