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We Want Meaningful Work

(p. 1) HOW satisfied are we with our jobs?

Gallup regularly polls workers around the world to find out. Its survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either "not engaged" with or "actively disengaged" from their jobs. 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.

Why? One possibility is that it's just human nature to dislike work. This was the view of Adam Smith, the father of industrial capitalism, who felt that people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay. "It is the interest of every man," he wrote in 1776 in "The Wealth of Nations," "to live as much at his ease as he can."

This idea has been enormously influential. About a century later, it helped shape the scientific management movement, which created systems of manufacture that minimized the need for skill and close attention -- things that lazy, pay-driven workers could not be expected to have.

Today, in factories, offices and other workplaces, the details may be different but the overall situation is the same: Work is structured on the assumption that we do it only because we have to. The call center employee is monitored to ensure that he ends each call quickly. The office worker's keystrokes are overseen to guarantee productivity.

. . .

(p. 4) To start with, I don't think most people recognize themselves in Adam Smith's description of wage-driven idlers. Of course, we care about our wages, and we wouldn't work without them. But we care about more than money. We want work that is challenging and engaging, that enables us to exercise some discretion and control over what we do, and that provides us opportunities to learn and grow. We want to work with colleagues we respect and with supervisors who respect us. Most of all, we want work that is meaningful -- that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way.

. . .

You enter an occupation with a variety of aspirations aside from receiving your pay. But then you discover that your work is structured so that most of those aspirations will be unmet. Maybe you're a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems -- but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call. Or you're a teacher who wants to educate kids -- but you discover that only their test scores matter. Or you're a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism -- but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.

Pretty soon, you lose your lofty aspirations. And over time, later generations don't even develop the lofty aspirations in the first place. Compensation becomes the measure of all that is possible from work. When employees negotiate, they negotiate for improved compensation, since nothing else is on the table. And when this goes on long enough, we become just the kind of creatures that Adam Smith thought we always were.

For the full commentary, see:

BARRY SCHWARTZ. "Rethinking Work." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., AUG. 30, 2015): 1 & 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date AUG. 28, 2015,)

The commentary is related to Schwartz's book:

Schwartz, Barry. Why We Work, Ted Books. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

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