Finding meaning from your job is something, like a lot of people, I struggle with. One of the most common complaints by people working is “the money may be good but where is the meaning? How can I make a difference?”. There are two things that give work meaning. First is the satisfaction that comes from the work itself. Yet this simple pleasure in the job is not open to most people: the majority of jobs are either boring or beastly or both. The second is that meaningful work must be somehow worthwhile; that in doing it we must feel that we are making a difference.
If you go out looking for “meaning” you are most unlikely to find anything. It is the same thing with happiness: the more you search, the less you find. This crisis of meaningless is a relatively new thing. A report from the Work Foundation published argues that looking for meaning at work would have seemed outlandish even a generation ago. But now, as a joint result of affluence and our general leaning towards introspection, it has become the norm. We all insist that our jobs should mean something.
In fact, whoever coined the phrase “making a difference” has made a difference, though not a positive one. The phrase gestures towards grandiose achievement that is out of reach for almost everybody. Most of us make very little difference at all – which stands to reason if you think there are 150 million workers in the US alone, making it almost impossible that any of us will make a difference, except to the people we work directly with.
But what is the matter with that? Why isn’t that enough? Indeed, according to a survey published last week by YouGov, having nice colleagues is as important as money in persuading employees to stay in their jobs. This means that simply by being liked by your colleagues you are making a difference, even if only a modest one.
In fact as long as we set our sights low enough we all do make a difference at work. By performing the tasks we are supposed to perform, we are making a difference to our employers. If we weren’t, they would have fired us long ago.
There is a tiny glimmer of hope that we will all soon start to be less unreasonable in demanding reason from work. And that glimmer comes, of all places, from the credit crunch. My hunch is that this is because they are paid so much more than they feel their efforts are really worth – a thought that tips them straight into the it’s-all-meaningless abyss. But when these people feel that their pay may cease altogether as they join the other thousands who have just been fired, they may suddenly find that their jobs aren’t quite so meaningless after all. Or, better still, they will stop asking themselves the question.