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Posted
March 30, 2009

More Than Just Jobs, We Need Meaningful Work

Silver lining of economic crisis could be redefining the idea of good work

The Definition of “Work”
We are today surrounded by an abundance of productivity that the market does not recognize or value. In this consumer society, we think about “work” as what people do to pay for goods and services in the marketplace. If our work doesn’t earn money, it’s not counted as an economic asset. The power of the market is so strong that we often don’t recognize or value work that is essential to society’s future. The unpaid contributions of homemaking, parenting, volunteering, care giving and citizenship are not valued or nor appreciated.


Americans (and many others in the modern world) have internalized a limited definition of work defined exclusively as employment in the market economy. As a result, we have discarded the real and potential productivity of young people and retirees—and everyone else who is outside of the paid workforce. Consider the impact this has upon many people:


* Homemakers, who feel ashamed when they are asked, “And what do you do?” and answer, “Nothing.”

  • Single parents, who have been pushed off welfare into work because the task of child-rearing is not valued as work (unless they are paid for it as foster parents or professional child-care providers).
  • Students, whose commitment to learning is belittled when they are asked, “So how are you going to make any money studying that?” When are you going to join the real world and start working?”
  • Retirees, who say, “Work was my life, and now I have no life.”


    Consider the many ways in which an expanded definition of work would affect everyone’s view of themselves and the society we share in common. We would understand that each of us matters in ways other than as an employee, boss or consumer. We would recover our identities as neighbors, homemakers, caregivers and as co-creators who joint together to make things happen.


    The Attributes of Good Work
    As longtime social activist Edgar Cahn says well in No More Throw-Away People (2000), “Work must be redefined to include whatever it takes to rear healthy children, preserve families, make neighborhoods safe and vibrant, care for the frail and vulnerable, redress injustice, and make democracy work. The new definition must be one that mobilizes capacity, links capacity to need, rewards contribution, builds the village.”


    Cahn’s statement goes beyond defining work to actually describing “good work,” which claims, protects and improves those things that society as a whole shares and values—the commons. Similarly, President Obama emphasizes good work when he outlines a 21st century to build capacity for the future:


    * Good work will improve access to the Internet and connections for windmills to the electricity grid.

  • Good work will build bikeways and walking paths through neighborhoods.
  • Good work will include community service.


    Good work is defined by the value of the outcomes that it generates – whether physical infrastructure, human services, or neighborhood safety.


    The Attributes of Meaningful Work
    Work is meaningful based on how it is valued, structured and managed. These attributes matter whether the job is picking up trash, planting trees, manufacturing widgets, piloting a spacecraft, or cashiering in a store.


    The good news is that any work is meaningful if it is:


    * performed within a culture of respect

  • matches with the worker’s interests and skills
  • requires mindful engagement
  • produces some identifiable results
  • attracts positive reinforcement (income, applause, expression of appreciation)
  • stimulates learning
  • benefits others


    Why is it important for work to be meaningful? Whether paid or unpaid, meaningful work boosts the common good—for the workers who are using their skills, and for the community that benefits from their work. People who believe they are doing something useful for themselves and their communities feel better about themselves, stay healthier, and live longer. Meaningful work teaches the skills, habits and attitudes that generate productivity.


    What’s the flip side of “meaningful work?” Every day, I hear stories about the pain caused by poor workplace communication in my role as the co-founder of SHiFT, a network for people in transition seeking greater meaning in their life and work. Stories like these:


    * Experienced workers who have been downsized yet one more time describing the pressures of working overtime for stressed-out supervisors who seldom if ever recognize their good work.

  • Middle-aged men with kids in college and no savings in the bank describing the impact of suddenly, one morning, being told, “This is your last day. Clean out your desks and leave the office by noon. You will receive one month’s severance pay.”
  • People of all ages saying, “Applying for a job online and sending your resume to a company is like sending it into a black hole. By the time you see the job posted, it’s probably already been filled. And you shouldn’t ever expect an answer back to tell you that you are out of the running.”


    Assuring Good, Meaningful Work through the Stimulus Job Programs
    It would be a great mistake to send stimulus money to employers who will treat more people like this. There are other ways to create employment. Both the Reinvestment Act and the Serve America Act will fund job programs, the latter for volunteer stipends rather than full pay. Stringent requirements for subsidized jobs must be tuned to guaranteeing both good and meaningful work.


    The basic principles for meaningful work should be clearly stated in government program regulations. Ultimately, this will only happen when policymakers and managers responsible for job programs internalize certain basic values and leadership skills. These involve seeing good work means as extending our personal sense of responsibility to something larger than ourselves, which is another good definition of the commons. In a democratic community, all citizens are treated as co-creators of the common good.


    A culture of respect recognizes that everyone has special assets to offer as well as something to gain. Everyone is seen as a teacher as well as a learner. Jockeying for status gives way to teamwork. Rewards go beyond money. Open, two-way communication is constant. The sense of interconnectedness is palpable.


    Does this sound idealistic? Where there’s a will, there’s a way! On April 3, 1933, one month after his inauguration, President Roosevelt sent out the call for 25,000 unemployed men to enroll in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Co-managed by the Departments of Labor, War, Agriculture, and Interior, the CCC had been signed into law on March 31. Young men loaded onto buses and trucks and took up work assignments in forests and parks across the country. By mid-July, 275,000 workers were housed, fed, and employed at more than 1,300 camps. Just as Roosevelt had hoped, young men (and later, young women) built roads, trails, camps, and picnic grounds. They worked on erosion and flood control projects and planted trees. Most earned $30 a month, and sent $25 of it home to support family members. And they learned new skills. My brother learned welding at a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in northern Maine. That welding skill got him into a school for ground mechanics and a good position in the Naval Air Force through WWII. More important, he now talks about how CCC turned him from a loser to a learner.


    We need more of the determination to make things better for people that characterized the New Deal. Young and old, we are yearning for more meaning in life and work. There is much work for us to do, whether as paid workers or as unpaid volunteers. Everyone should be offered chances to participate in defining, restoring, managing, leading, governing, and owning those things that are important to the future of the community.


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    by Jan Hively (Janet M. Hively, PhD), hivel001@umn.edu, 612-379-4124