Why there’s more than one solution to the search for meaning
Teaser: This is the first part of a series on the topic of hybrid work. Here we discuss the meaning that work might have for us in the 21st century: Work is more than just a job. It is a profession, almost a vocation, and an important part of our identity. If we have a wage job, we inevitably ask too much of it, and we inevitably become stressed. The situation is quite different with a hybrid understanding of work.
Don’t just be successful with your work, but draw a unique meaning from it, seems to be the imperative of our time.
Among the thousands of things one misses in pandemic times – live music, going out to eat, parties, chance acquaintances – there is one thing I don’t miss: It’s the same old get-to-know-you question, “So, what do you do?”
This is genuinely the Gordon Ramsey of party questions because it comes off as chummy yet gets right to the heart of a problematic core belief.
You are what you work, and only that makes your existence meaningful. Beyond that, there’s not much to say.
There is also little room to evade the question, except perhaps to answer: “Stand around listening to stupid questions”. For anyone who has ever been annoyed by this thorny question, there is hope. Over-identification with one job is part of an era of work that’s in decline for three reasons:
1. Focussing on one job as a source of meaning is increasingly pushing us to our limits
This over-identification with work has been proven to make us sick.
Psychotherapy has enlightened us about how unstable it is to construct one’s identity on a single activity.
Work is overloaded with identity needs, which is why our relationship with work has clear weak points:
One in six people have “clocked out” internally at work, and 85 percent don’t see their needs met by it.
In the post-industrial world, our work is less tangible; we are never quite finished, never quite satisfied, and we end up exploiting ourselves. We lack the tangible sense of meaning that gives us self-worth.
In the meantime, other sources of meaning, such as religion or family, are also in decline.
All this pressure for meaning then leads quite practically to the fact that many would rather answer emails on Sunday than go to the movies Monday evening. Nowadays, however, many in the home office are discovering other sources of identity that seem wholesome and past due: our neighborhood, the co-working space, the home – maybe it’s time to revalue our families?
2. Soon, questions of meaning might arise in a world without work
It’s not just the breakdown in a search for meaning that will make a one-sided understanding of work difficult in the future: Most jobs in existence today are at risk of disappearing.
Insurance agents? An endangered species. Artificial intelligence will replace humans in more and more professions. New professions will emerge, such as virtual-world designers.
But it’s naive to think that all insurance agents will retrain to become virtual-world designers, and another question entirely if we even want a virtual world created by ex-insurance agents, as Yuval Harari writes.
He, therefore, investigates the meaning of life in a world without work or with less work. It might just retool that dreaded party question.
3. Our understanding of work already bars us from many activities
Last but not least, the question of meaning in the “one work” scenario is based on an understanding of work that has always excluded many things: caring for loved ones, household chores, volunteering – as long as such activity is overlooked, we don’t construct a progressive work identity.
This narrow concept of work has no place in the future if we want to understand it normatively.
So once this one-sided view of a job is overcome, what takes its place?
You are more than your job
It might be something we call “hybrid work”. We’re already seeing the first signs of this today – for example, when we hear newcomers to the profession say things like, “I can’t work on Fridays because I’m working on my graphic novel,” or, “I want to complete my training as a systemic therapist while working.”
Hybrid work has a leg to stand on and a solid hand to play. With it, people discover several sources of meaning for themselves and begin to feel that being tied to one job, to one way of defining themselves from the outside (and, let’s face it, from the inside, too), is undesirably restrictive.
Those who move in a hybrid work world create psychological security because it lowers the pressure to find meaning in a job and has even been shown to increase performance in “traditional” jobs (Sessions et al., 2020).
It creates innovation where areas of tension are exposed (for example, the e-athlete working in health insurance).
It makes room in society for activities beyond gainful employment, where work is once again understood in the way Saint Bernard of Clairvaux defined it in the 12th century: “work as active love” instead of “paycheck after paycheck” (as rapper Yung Lean put it).
Some also speak of so-called side-hustles, of places where one flexes new muscle and becomes an amateur in the true sense of the word: The amator (Latin for lover) pursues a thing (at first!) out of pure love, out of experimentation, not because a boss, career goals or breadwinning benchmarks dictate it. But to call this sort of pursuit, a “side-hustle” still subordinates it to “real” work.
After all, isn’t it precisely this – the most enthusiastic employment of our strengths, the proverbial tinkering – that gives rise to the most relevant innovations and, ultimately, the most jobs?
Hybrid work as a concept for the future
Great hybrid workers of the past have already shown us the way: Just take a look at Franz Kafka, who structured his employment as an insurance agent (speaking of) around his vocation of writing.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were both working day jobs when they launched Apple from a Silicon Valley garage. Perhaps the “narrative imagination” of Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk praised by the 2018 prize committee, owes something to her work as a psychologist and the easy flow of German rapper Dexter to the fact that he is actually a pediatrician?
A friend told me the other day about a judge in a large northern German city who has a traditional hunting horn under his desk. He occasionally blocks off time to pursue his avocation in the soundproof basement of the imposing courthouse.
We’ll have to make more room in our employment world for this kind of pursuit, this hybrid working that involves both feet on the ground and a head in the clouds, if progress and satisfaction at work are a concern for us, if we really want to understand work as development.
This hybrid work does not negate the question of meaning in work but bases it in a healthier reality: It’s not work that brings meaning to my life, but I bring meaning into work.
Work is the vessel, I fill it, as a lawyer who is also a swimming coach, as a baker who programs, as an engineer who writes. Maybe hybrid work is still the utopia of a privileged few today, but didn’t all social innovations start the same way?
As a beginning, instead of “What work gives you your meaning?” shouldn’t we ask the get-to-know-you question, “What meaning do you give to your work?”
Hans Rusinek conducts research on the transformation of work at the University of St. Gallen and is a member of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Social Market Economy doctoral program. Previously, he was the first associate and associate strategy director of the Boston Consulting Group’s purpose consultancy, BrightHouse. He participates in debates between business and society, for example, in BrandEins or Deutschlandfunk. In 2020, he won the Ludwig Erhard Foundation’s Business Journalism Award for his work. Hans is an honorary fellow in the Club of Rome’s ThinkTank30. He studied economics, philosophy, and politics at the London School of Economics and in Bayreuth.
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