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Economics, Liminality

A Lesson From Sandy on Meaningful Work

As Frankenstorm Sandy ominously approached on Sunday, made it’s presence fully known on Monday and left it’s indelible marks behind on Tuesday, I was reminded of something very important.  The answer to the question of: What is actually meaningful?

And this goes beyond the usual reflections of figuring out when the lights go out that access to the the highest rated restaurant is not really meaningful, while access to food generally is.  That designer shoes are not nearly as important as waterproof boots.  That living in the hip neighborhood doesn’t match heat, hot water, electricity, friends or family.

But, actually, what made me think about this question is because the little birdie works for a hospital.  And while everyone else was hoping for days off work (and while I was relaxing) she was on the phone with her colleagues trying to figure out how to cover their shifts.  On Sunday.  On Monday.  And on Tuesday.  She was unable to get into Manhattan due to the lack of transportation.  It was basically impossible.  Yet she still felt guilty because many of her colleagues were able to make it to the hospital and ended up spending the night(s) there through the duration of the storm.

I remember when I used to work at a “demanding” high-paying job, I thought people took themselves too seriously (I undoubtedly took myself too seriously too for the record).  I used to complain that it’s not like whatever pointless task I was being asked to complete at 2AM was a life or death situation.  And, as Sandy clearly demonstrated, I was right.  There are jobs that do stand in between life and death.  First responders like ambulance drivers, firemen.  Mayors, nurses, doctors, social workers.  There are others like MTA technicians, bus drivers, taxi drivers, reporters, electricians, meteorologists, grocery store owners, managers and clerks (and my personal favorite, bar owners) who provide essential services without which New York (and many other places) would not function.

These are jobs that are really important, extremely vital to anything and everything that we do.  They matter.  Frankenstorm Sandy made that perfectly clear in it’s own twisted way.  And, not surprisingly (to me at least), in many cases, they all share the distinction of being in service of others.  Some are literally willing to risk their lives for the benefit of others, while others choose what they do for reasons that are not so altruistic.  I’m not sure that matters though.  What is important is that everything that they do has a profoundly positive societal impact on all people, rich and poor.

How many of us can say the same?

To put it more bluntly, how many of us are in careers or jobs that really have meaning, or matter at all?  If they went away, what exactly would happen?  Would society seriously be negatively impacted?  If the advertising executive position disappeared tomorrow would anyone notice?  Who really cares if the management consultant can’t do their work (other than other management consultants)?  If your favorite couture dress designer ceased production, you’d look less dapper I’m sure, but life would certainly go on.  In thinking about this, I actually came to the opinion that the further away from life and death that you get in what you do, it’s quite likely that the further away from meaning you are.

So, if that’s the case, why not choose something that really does have meaning?  That people depend on?  That helps others crucially and vitally?  That positively impacts all of those around you?

Well, for one, I’m not sure that everyone wants that pressure.  Not everyone wants to know that other people’s livelihoods hang in the balance based on whether and how well they do their job.  That’s fair.  Not everyone can accept that challenge.  But I believe that more can than they think.

Also, maybe the activities one enjoys aren’t really meaningful activities.  For instance, let’s think back to that dress designer I kind of disparaged earlier.  They may really love fashion, the feel of the fabric, the vibrant colors, the creativity of bringing new ideas to life.  That is certainly personally fulfilling and I would certainly never say that someone should not follow their passion.  But I also don’t think that is at odds with the idea of working on meaning either.  The dress designer could certainly apply all of those things that they are so passionate about to other areas of meaning, such as making cheaper, sustainable, more durable clothing which are more accessible and would clothe people around the world who don’t currently have many, if any, quality choices.

Which brings us to the last, and most likely, reason that people don’t choose meaningful work.  In case it wasn’t completely obvious in the last example, the dress designer is going to make a lot more money and prestige focusing on the couture (and hence inaccessible), than being a fashionista for the people.  I’m not sure what it says about us that people that are absolutely essential to how society functions and benefits others are frequently paid much less than those that aren’t, but I can’t really think of many positives.  That this disparity exists for those that do choose meaningful work not only is perversely disappointing and backwards, but the idea that it also discourages people from actually choosing to pursue work with meaning in the first place makes it even worse.

Personally, I would say that getting paid shouldn’t matter as much in terms of the path one chooses and I genuinely do believe that statement.  Because by doing so, one is placing value on material over meaning.  But I also realize that not everyone thinks like that.  And, of course, it would be nice to have a balance.

So perhaps we can work on achieving that balance?  I’m not exactly sure of the details of how, but I think they start with…

  • Individually, we can choose meaningful work…
  • Collectively, we can design a better mousetrap to figure out a way to reward those that choose meaningful  work…

With apologies to the couture dress designer, wouldn’t that be excellent?

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